In a deflationary world at the ZLB we need ‘competitive devaluations’

Sunday we got some bad news, which many wrongly will see as good news – this is from Reuters:

China and the United States on Sunday committed anew to refrain from competitive currency devaluations, and China said it would continue an orderly transition to a market-oriented exchange rate for the yuan CNY=CFXS.

…Both countries said they would “refrain from competitive devaluations and not target exchange rates for competitive purposes”, the fact sheet said.

Meanwhile, China would “continue an orderly transition to a market-determined exchange rate, enhancing two-way flexibility. China stresses that there is no basis for a sustained depreciation of the RMB (yuan). Both sides recognize the importance of clear policy communication.”

There is really nothing to celebrate here. The fact is that in a world where the largest and most important central banks in the world – including the Federal Reserve – continue to undershoot their inflation targets and where deflation remains a real threat any attempt – including using the exchange rate channel – to increase inflation expectations should be welcomed.

This of course is particularly important in a world where the ‘natural interest rate’ likely is quite close to zero and where policy rates are stuck very close to the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). In such a world the exchange rate can be a highly useful instrument to curb deflationary pressures – as forcefully argued by for example Lars E. O. Svensson and Bennett McCallum.

In fact by agreeing not to use the exchange rate as a channel for easing monetary conditions the two most important ‘monetary superpowers’ in the world are sending a signal to the world that they are in fact not fully committed to fight deflationary pressures. That certainly is bad news – particularly because especially the Fed seems bewildered about conducting monetary policy in the present environment.

Furthermore, I am concerned that the Japanese government is in on this deal – at least indirectly – and that is why the Bank of Japan over the last couple of quarters seems to have allowed the yen to get significantly stronger, which effective has undermined BoJ chief Kuroda’s effort to hit BoJ’s 2% inflation target.

A couple of months ago we also got a very strong signal from ECB chief Mario Draghi that “competitive devaluations” should be avoided. Therefore there seems to be a broad consensus among the ‘Global Monetary Superpowers’ that currency fluctuation should be limited and that the exchange rate channel should not be used to fight devaluation pressures.

This in my view is extremely ill-advised and in this regard it should be noted that monetary easing if it leads to a weakening of the currency is not a beggar-thy-neighbour policy as it often wrongly is argued (see my arguments about this here).

Rather it could be a very effective way of increase inflationary expectations and that is exactly what we need now in a situation where central banks are struggling to figure out how to conduct monetary policy when interest rates are close the ZLB.

See some of my earlier posts on ‘currency war’/’competitive devaluations’ here:

Bernanke knows why ‘currency war’ is good news – US lawmakers don’t

‘The Myth of Currency War’

Don’t tell me the ‘currency war’ is bad for European exports – the one graph version

The New York Times joins the ‘currency war worriers’ – that is a mistake

The exchange rate fallacy: Currency war or a race to save the global economy?

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

Fiscal devaluation – a terrible idea that will never work

Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation

Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons

The luck of the ‘Scandies’



Riksbanken moves close to the ZLB – Now it is time to give Bennett McCallum a call

In a very surprising move the Swedish Riksbank this morning cut its key policy rate by 50bp to 0.25%. It was about time! The Riksbank has for a very long time undershot its 2% inflation target and inflation expectations have consistently been below 2% for a long time as well.

The interesting question now is what is next? The Riksbank is now very close to the Zero Lower Bound and with inflation still way below the inflation target one could argue that even more easing is needed.

I have earlier addressed how to conduct monetary policy at the ZLB for small-open economies like Sweden. Traditional quantitative easing obviously is an option, but it is also possible to get some inspiration from the works of such great economists as Lars E. O. Svensson or Bennett McCallum.

Already back in 2012 I wrote a post about what advice Bennett would give to the Riksbank in a situation like it now find itself in. This is from my blog post Sweden, Poland and Australia should have a look at McCallum’s MC rule

Market Monetarists – like traditional monetarists – of course long have argued that “interest rate targeting” is a terribly bad monetary instrument, but it nonetheless remains the preferred policy instrument of most central banks in the world. Scott Sumner has suggested that central banks instead should use NGDP futures in the conduct of monetary policy and I have in numerous blog posts suggested that central banks in small open economies instead of interest rates could use the currency rate as a policy instrument (not as a target!). See for example my recent post on Singapore’s monetary policy regime.

Bennett McCallum has greatly influenced my thinking on monetary policy and particularly my thinking on using the exchange rate as a policy instrument and I would certainly suggest that policy makers should take a look at especially McCallum’s research on the conduct of monetary policy when interest rates are close to the “zero lower bound”.

In McCallum’s 2005 paper “A Monetary Policy Rule for Automatic Prevention of a Liquidity Trap? …

…What McCallum suggests is basically that central banks should continue to use interest rates as the key policy instruments, but also that the central bank should announce that if interest rates needs to be lowered below zero then it will automatically switch to a Singaporean style regime, where the central bank will communicate monetary easing and tightening by announcing appreciating/depreciating paths for the country’s exchange rate.

McCallum terms this rule the MC rule. The reason McCallum uses this term is obviously the resemblance of his rule to a Monetary Conditions Index, where monetary conditions are expressed as an index of interest rates and the exchange rate. The thinking behind McCallum’s MC rule, however, is very different from a traditional Monetary Conditions index.

McCallum basically express MC in the following way:

(1) MC=(1-Θ)R+Θ(-Δs)

Where R is the central bank’s key policy rate and Δs is the change in the nominal exchange rate over a certain period. A positive (negative) value for Δs means a depreciation (an appreciation) of the country’s currency. Θ is a weight between 0 and 1.

Hence, the monetary policy instrument is expressed as a weighted average of the key policy rate and the change in the nominal exchange.

It is easy to see that if interest rates hits zero (R=0) then monetary policy will only be expressed as changes in the exchange rate MC=Θ(-Δs).

While McCallum formulate the MC as a linear combination of interest rates and the exchange rate we could also formulate it as a digital rule where the central bank switches between using interest rates and exchange rates dependent on the level of interest rates so that when interest rates are at “normal” levels (well above zero) monetary policy will be communicated in terms if interest rates changes, but when we get near zero the central bank will announce that it will switch to communicating in changes in the nominal exchange rate.

It should be noted that the purpose of the rule is not to improve “competitiveness”, but rather to expand the money base via buying foreign currency to achieve a certain nominal target such as an inflation target or an NGDP level target…

…The point is that monetary policy is far from impotent. There might be a Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. In the monetary policy debate the two are mistakenly often believed to be the same thing. As McCallum expresses it:

It would be better, I suggest, to use the term “zero lower bound situation,” rather than “liquidity trap,” since the latter seems to imply a priori that there is no available mechanism for generating monetary policy stimulus”

…So central banks are far from “out of ammunition” when they hit the zero lower bound and as McCallum demonstrates the central bank can just switch to managing the exchange rates when that happens. In the “real world” the central banks could of course announce they will be using a MC style instrument to communicate monetary policy. However, this would mean that central banks would have to change their present operational framework and the experience over the past four years have clearly demonstrated that most central banks around the world have a very hard time changing bad habits even when the consequence of this conservatism is stagnation, deflationary pressures, debt crisis and financial distress.

I would therefore suggest a less radical idea, but nonetheless an idea that essentially would be the same as the MC rule. My suggestion would be that for example the Swedish Riksbank … should continue to communicate monetary policy in terms of changes in the interest rates, but also announce that if interest rates where to drop below for example 1% then the central bank would switch to communicating monetary policy changes in terms of projected changes in the exchange rate in the exact same fashion as the Monetary Authorities are doing it in Singapore.

…Imagine for example that the US had had such a rule in place in 2008. As the initial shock hit the Federal Reserve was able to cut rates but as fed funds rates came closer to zero the investors realized that there was an operational (!) limit to the amount of monetary easing the fed could do and the dollar then started to strengthen dramatically. However, had the fed had in place a rule that would have led to an “automatic” switch to a Singapore style policy as interest rates dropped close to zero then the markets would have realized that in advance and there wouldn’t had been any market fears that the Fed would not ease monetary policy further. As a consequence the massive strengthening of the dollar we saw would very likely have been avoided and there would probably never had been a Great Recession.

The problem was not that the fed was not willing to ease monetary policy, but that it operationally was unable to do so initially. Tragically Al Broaddus president of the Richmond Federal Reserve already back in 2003 (See Bob Hetzel’s “Great Recession – Market Failure or Policy Failure?” page 301) had suggested the Federal Reserve should pre-announce what policy instrument(s) should be used in the event that interest rates hit zero. The suggestion tragically was ignored and we now know the consequence of this blunder.

The Swedish Riksbank…can.. avoid repeating the fed’s blunder by already today announcing a MC style. That would lead to an “automatic prevention of the liquidity trap”.

That is it – now back to writing on the Polish central bank’s failure to do the right thing at it’s rate decision yesterday.


See also A scary story: The Zero Lower Bound and exchange rate dynamics

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