The Jedi mind trick – Matt O’Brien’s insightful version of the Chuck Norris effect

Our friend Matt O’Brien has a great new comment on the Matt is one of the most clever commentators on monetary matters in the US media.

In Matt’s new comment he set out to explain the importance of expectations in the monetary transmission mechanism.

Here is Matt:

“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” That’s what Obi-Wan Kenobi famously tells a trio of less-than-with-it baddies in Star Wars when — spoiler alert! — they actually were the droids they were looking for. But thanks to the Force, Kenobi convinces them otherwise. That’s a Jedi mind trick — and it’s a pretty decent model for how central banks can manipulate expectations. Thanks to the printing press, the Fed can create a self-fulfilling reality. Even with interest rates at zero.

Central banks have a strong influence on market expectations. Actually, they have as strong an influence as they want to have. Sometimes they use quantitative easing to communicate what they want. Sometimes they use their words. And that’s where monetary policy basically becomes a Jedi mind trick.

The true nature of central banking isn’t about interest rates. It’s about making and keeping promises. And that brings me to a confession. I lied earlier. Central banks don’t really buy or sell short-term bonds when they lower or raise short-term interest rates. They don’t need to. The market takes care of it. If the Fed announces a target and markets believe the Fed is serious about hitting that target, the Fed doesn’t need to do much else. Markets don’t want to bet against someone who can conjure up an infinite amount of money — so they go along with the Fed.

Don’t underestimate the power of expectations. It might sound a like a hokey religion, but it’s not. Consider Switzerland. Thanks to the euro’s endless flirtation with financial oblivion, investors have piled into the Swiss franc as a safe haven. That sounds good, but a massively overvalued currency is not good. It pushes inflation down to dangerously low levels, and makes exports uncompetitive. So the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has responded by devaluing its currency — setting a ceiling on its value at 1.2 Swiss francs to 1 euro. In other words, the SNB has promised to print money until its money is worth what it wants it to be worth. It’s quantitative easing with a target. And, as Evan Soltas pointed out, the beauty of this target is that the SNB hasn’t even had to print money lately, because markets believe it now. Markets have moved the exchange rate to where the SNB wants it.”

This is essentially the Star Wars version of the Chuck Norris effect as formulated by Nick Rowe and myself. The Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy: You don’t have to print more money to ease monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target.

It is pretty simple. It is all about credibility. A central bank has all the powers in the world to increase inflation and nominal GDP (remember MV=PY!) and if the central bank clearly demonstrates that it will use this power to ensure for example a stable growth path for the NGDP level then it might not have to do any (additional) money printing to achieve this. The market will simply do all the lifting.

Imagine that a central bank has a NGDP level target and a shock to velocity or the money supply hits (for example due to banking crisis) then the expectation for future NGDP (initially) drops below the target level. If the central bank’s NGDP target is credible then market participants, however, will know that the central bank will react by increasing the money base until it achieves it’s target. There will be no limits to the potential money printing the central bank will do.

If the market participants expect more money printing then the country’s currency will obviously weaken and stock prices will increase. Bond yields will increase as inflation expectations increase. As inflation and growth expectations increase corporations and household will decrease their cash holdings – they will invest and consume more. The this essentially the Market Monetarist description of the monetary transmission mechanism under a fully credible monetary nominal target (See for example my earlier posts here and here).

This also explains why Scott Sumner always says that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. As I have argued before this of course only is right if the monetary policy is credible. If the monetary target is 100% credible then monetary policy basically becomes endogenous. The market reacts to information that the economy is off target. However, if the target is not credible then the central bank has to do most of the lifting itself. In that situation monetary policy will work with long and variable lags (as suggested by Milton Friedman). See my discussion of lag and leads in monetary policy here.

During the Great Moderation monetary policy in the euro zone and the US was generally credible and monetary policy therefore was basically endogenous. In that world any shock to the money supply will basically be automatically counteracted by the markets. The money supply growth and velocity tended to move in opposite directions to ensure the NGDP level target (See more on that here). In a world where the central bank is able to apply the Jedi mind trick the central bankers can use most of their time golfing. Only central bankers with no credibility have to work hard micromanaging things.


So the reason European central bankers are so busy these days is that the ECB is no longer a credible. If you want to test me – just have a look at market inflation expectations. Inflation expectations in the euro zone have basically been declining for more than a year and is now well below the ECB’s official inflation target of 2%. If the ECB had an credible inflation target of 2% do you then think that 10-year German bond yields would be approaching 1%? Obviously the ECB could solve it’s credibility problem extremely easy and with the help of a bit Jedi mind tricks and Chuck Norris inflation expectations could be pegged at close to 2% and the euro crisis would soon be over – and it could do more than that with a NGDP level target.

Until recently it looked like Ben Bernanke and the Fed had nailed it (See here – once I believed that Bernanke did nail it). Despite an escalating euro crisis the US stock market was holding up quite well, the dollar did not strengthen against the euro and inflation expectations was not declining – clear indications that the Fed was not “importing” monetary tightening from Europe. The markets clearly was of the view that if the euro zone crisis escalated the Fed would just step up quantitative ease (QE3). However, the Fed’s credibility once again seems to be under pressures. US stock markets have taken a beating, US inflation expectations have dropped sharply and the dollar has strengthened. It seems like Ben Bernanke is no Chuck Norris and he does not seem to master the Jedi mind trick anymore. So why is that?

Matt has the answer:

“I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but nothing quite as strange as the Fed’s reluctance to declare a target recently. Rather than announce a target, the Fed announces how much quantitative easing it will do. This is planning for failure. Quantitative easing without a target is more quantitative and less easing. Without an open-ended commitment that shocks expectations, the Fed has to buy more bonds to get less of a result. It’s the opposite of what the SNB has done.

Many economists have labored to bring us this knowledge — including a professor named Ben Bernanke — and yet the Fed mostly ignores it. I say mostly, because the Fed has said that it expects to keep short-term interest rates near zero through late 2014. But this sounds more radical than it is in reality. It’s not a credible promise because it’s not even a promise. It’s what the Fed expects will happen. So what would be a good way to shift expectations? Let’s start with what isn’t a good way.”

I agree – the Fed needs to formulate a clear nominal target andit needs to formulate a clear reaction function. How hard can it be? Sometimes I feel that central bankers like to work long hours and want to micromanage things.

UPDATE: Marcus Nunes and Bill Woolsey also comments on Matt’s piece..

Counterfeiting, nazis and monetary separation

A couple of months ago a friend my sent me an article from the Guardian about how “Nazi Germany flooded Europe with fake British banknotes in an attempt to destroy confidence in the currency. The forgeries were so good that even German spymasters paid their agents in Britain with fake notes..The fake notes were first circulated in neutral Portugal and Spain with the double objective of raising money for the Nazi cause and creating a lack of confidence in the British currency.”

The article made me think about the impact of counterfeiting and whether thinking about the effects of counterfeiting could teach us anything about monetary theory. It should be stressed that my argument will not be a defense of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is obviously fraudulent and as such immoral.

Thinking about the impact of counterfeiting we need to make two assumptions. First, are the counterfeited notes (and coins for the matter) “good” or not. Second what is the policy objective of the central bank – does the central bank have a nominal target or not.

Lets start out analyzing the case where the quality of the the counterfeited notes is so good that nobody will be able to distinguish them from the real thing and where the central bank has a clear and credible nominal target – for example a inflation target or a NGDP level target. In this case the counterfeiter basically is able to expand the money supply in a similar fashion as the central bank. Hence, effectively the nazi German counterfeiters in this scenario would be able to increase inflation and the level of NGDP in the UK in the same way as the Bank of  England. However, if the BoE had been operating an inflation target then any increase in inflation (above the inflation target) due to an increase in the counterfeit money supply would have lead the BoE to reduce the official money supply. Furthermore, if the inflation target was credible an increase in inflation would be considered to be temporary by market participants and would lead to a drop in money velocity (this is the Chuck Norris effect).

Hence, under a credible inflation targeting regime an increase in the counterfeit money supply would automatically lead to a drop in the official money supply and/or a drop in money-velocity and as a consequence it would not lead to an increase in inflation. The same would go for any other nominal target.

In fact we can imagine a situation where the entire official UK money supply would have been replaced by “nazi notes” and the only thing the BoE was be doing was to provide a credible nominal anchor. This would in fact be complete monetary separation – between the different functions of money. On the one hand the Nazi counterfeiters would be supplying both the medium of exchange and a medium for store of value, while the BoE would be supplying a unit of account.

Therefore the paradoxical result is that as long as the central bank provides a credible nominal target the impact of counterfeiting will be limited in terms of the impact on the economy. There is, however, one crucial impact and that is the revenue from seigniorage from iss uing money would be captured by the counterfeiters rather than by the central bank. From a fiscal perspective this might or might not be important.

Could counterfeiting be useful?

This also leads us to what surely is a controversial conclusion that a central bank, which is faced with a situation where there is strong monetary deflation – for example in the US during the Great Depression – counterfeiting would actually be beneficial as it would increase the “effective” money supply and therefore help curb the deflationary pressures. In that regard it would be noted that this case only is relevant when the nominal target – for example a NGDP level target or lets say a 2% inflation target is not seen to be credible.

Therefore, if the nominal target is not credible and there is deflation we could argue that counterfeiting could be beneficial in terms of hitting the nominal target. Of course in a situation with high inflation and no credible nominal target counterfeiting surely would make the inflationary problems even worse. This would probably have been the case in the UK during WW2 – inflation was high and there was not a credible nominal target and as such had the nazi counterfeiting been “successful” then it surely would have had a serious a negative impact on the British economy in the form of potential hyperinflation.

Monetary separation could be desirable – at least in terms of thinking about money

The discussion above in my view illustrates that it is important in separating the different functions of money when we talk about monetary policy and the example with perfect counterfeiting under a credible nominal target shows that we can imagine a situation where the provision of the unit of accounting is produced by a (monopoly) central bank, but where production the medium of exchange and storage is privatized. This is at the core of what used to be know as New Monetary Economics (NME).

The best known NME style policy proposal is the little understood BFH system proposed by Leland Yeager and Robert Greenfield. What Yeager and Greenfield basically is suggesting is that the only task the central bank should provide is the provision media of accounting, while the other functions should be privatised – or should I say it should be left to “counterfeiters”.

While I am skeptical about the practically workings of the BFH system and certainly is not proposing to legalise counterfeiting one should acknowledge that the starting point for monetary policy most be to provide the medium account – or said in another way under a monopoly central bank the main task of the central bank is to provide a numéraire. NGDP level targeting of course is such numéraire.

A more radical solution could of course be to allow private issuance of money denominated in the official medium of account. This effectively would take away the need for a lender of last resort, but would not be a full Free Banking system as the central bank would still set the numéraire, which occasionally would necessitate that the central bank issued its own money or sucked up privated issued money to ensure the NGDP target (or any other nominal target). This is of course not completely different from what is already happening in the sense the private banks under the present system is able to create money – and one can argue that that is in fact what happened in the US during the Great Moderation.

Lets concentrate on the policy framework

Here is Scott Sumner:

I’ve noticed that when I discuss economic policy with other free market types, it’s easier to get agreement on broad policy rules than day-to-day discretionary decisions.

I have noticed the same thing – or rather I find that when pro-market economists are presented with Market Monetarist ideas based on the fact that we want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks then it is much easier to sell our views than when we just argue for monetary “stimulus”. I don’t want central bank to ease monetary policy. I don’t want central banks to tighten monetary policy. I simply want to central banks to stop distorting relative prices. I believe the best way to ensure that is with futures based NGDP targeting as this is the closest we get to the outcome that would prevail under a truly free monetary system with competitive issuance of money.

I have often argued that NGDP level targeting is not about monetary stimulus (See here, here and here) and argued that NGDP level targeting is the truly free market alternative (see here).

This in my view is the uniting view for free market oriented economists. We can disagree about whether monetary policy was too loose in the US and Europe prior to 2008 or whether it became too tight in 2008/9. My personal view is that both US and European monetary policy likely was (a bit!) too loose prior to 2008, but then turned extremely tight in 2008/09. The Great Depression was not caused by too easy monetary policy, but too tight monetary policy. However, in terms of policy recommendations is that really important? Yes it is important in the sense of what we think that the Fed or the ECB should do right now in the absence of a clear framework of NGDP targeting (or any other clear nominal target). However, the really important thing is not whether the Fed or the ECB will ease a little bit more or a little less in the coming month or quarter, but how we ensure the right institutional framework to avoid a future repeat of the catastrophic policy response in 2008/9 (and 2011!). In fact I would be more than happy if we could convince the ECB and the Fed to implement NGDP level target at the present levels of NGDP in Europe and the US – that would mean a lot more to me than a little bit more easing from the major central banks of the world (even though I continue to think that would be highly desirable as well).

What can Scott Sumner, George Selgin, Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Bob Murphy and John Taylor all agree about? They want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks. Some of them would like to get rid of central banks all together, but as long as that option is not on the table they they all want to tie the hands of central bankers as much as possible. Scott, Steve and George all would agree that a form of nominal income targeting would be the best rule. Taylor might be convinced about that I think if it was completely rule based (at least if he listens to Evan Koeing). Bob of course want something completely else, but I think that even he would agree that a futures based NGDP targeting regime would be preferable to the present discretionary policies.

So maybe it is about time that we take this step by step and instead of screaming for monetary stimulus in the US and Europe start build alliances with those economists who really should endorse Market Monetarist ideas in the first place.

Here are the steps – or rather the questions Market Monetarists should ask other free market types (as Scott calls them…):

1) Do you agree that in the absence of Free Banking that monetary policy should be rule based rather than based on discretion?

2) Do you agree that markets send useful and appropriate signals for the conduct of monetary policy?

3) Do you agree that the market should be used to do forecasting for central banks and to markets should be used to implement policies rather than to leave it to technocrats? For example through the use of prediction markets and futures markets. (See my comments on prediction markets and market based monetary policy here and here).

4) Do you agree that there is good and bad inflation and good and bad deflation?

5) Do you agree that central banks should not respond to non-monetary shocks to the price level?

6) Do you agree that monetary policy can not solve all problems? (This Market Monetarists do not think so – see here)

7) Do you agree that the appropriate target for a central bank should be to the NGDP level?

I am pretty sure that most free market oriented monetary economists would answer “yes” to most of these questions. I would of course answer “yes” to them all.

So I suggest to my fellow Market Monetarists that these are the questions we should ask other free market economists instead of telling them that they are wrong about being against QE3 from the Fed. In fact would it really be strategically correct to argue for QE3 in the US right now? I am not sure. I would rather argue for strict NGDP level targeting and then I am pretty sure that the Chuck Norris effect and the market would do most of the lifting. We should basically stop arguing in favour of or against any discretionary policies.

PS I remain totally convinced that when economists in future discuss the causes of the Great Recession then the consensus among monetary historians will be that the Hetzelian-Sumnerian explanation of the crisis was correct. Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner are the Hawtreys and Cassels of the day.

Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers

Since the ECB introduced it’s 3-year LTRO on December 8 the signs that we are emerging from the crisis have grown stronger. This has been visible with stock prices rebounding strongly, long US bond yields have started to inch up and commodity prices have increased. This is all signs of easier monetary conditions globally.

We are now a couple of months into the market recovery and especially the recovery in commodity prices should soon be visible in US and European headline inflation and will likely soon begin to enter into the communication of central bankers around the world. This has reminded me of the “recession in the depression” in 1937. After FDR gave up the gold standard in 1933 the global economy started to recover and by 1937 US industrial production had basically returned to the 1929-level. The easing of global monetary conditions and the following recovery had spurred global commodity prices and by 1937 policy makers in the US started to worry about inflationary pressures.

However, in the second half of 1936 US economic activity and the US stock market went into a free fall and inflationary concerns soon disappeared.

There are a number of competing theories about what triggered the 1937 recession. I will especially like to highlight three monetary explanations:

1) Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their famous Monetary History highlighted the fact that the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase reserve requirements starting in July 1936 was what caused the recession of 1937.

2) Douglas Irwin has – in an excellent working paper from last year – claimed that it was not the Fed, but rather the US Treasury that caused the the recession as the Treasury moved aggressively to sterilize gold inflows into the US and thereby caused the US money supply to drop.

3) While 1) and 2) regard direct monetary actions the third explanation regards the change in the communication of US policy makers. Hence, Gauti B. Eggertsson and Benjamin Pugsley in an extremely interesting paper from 2006 argue that it was the communication about monetary and exchange rate policy that caused the recession of 1937. As Scott Sumner argues monetary policy works with long and variables leads. Eggertson and Pugsley argue exactly the same.

In my view all three explanations clearly are valid. However, I would probably question Friedman’s and Schwartz’s explanation on it’s own as being enough to explain the recession of 1937. I have three reasons to be slightly skeptical about the Friedman-Schwartz explanation. First, if indeed the tightening of reserve requirements caused the recession then it is somewhat odd that the market reaction to the announcement of the tightening of reserve requirements was so slow to impact the stock markets and the commodity prices. In fact the announcement of the increase in reserve requirements in July 1936 did not have any visible impact on stock prices when they were introduced. Second, it is also notable that there seems to have been little reference to the increased reserve requirement in the US financial media when the collapse started in the second half of 1937 – a year after the initial increase in reserve requirements. Third, Calomiris, Mason and Wheelock in paper from 2011 have demonstrated that banks already where holding large excess reserves and the increase in reserve requirements really was not very binding for many banks. That said, even if the increase in reserve requirement might not have been all that binding it nonetheless sent a clear signal about the Fed’s inflation worries and therefore probably was not irrelevant. More on that below.

Doug Irwin’s explanation that it was actually the US Treasury that caused the trouble through gold sterilization rather than the Fed through higher reserve requirements in my view has a lot of merit and I strongly recommend to everybody to read Doug’s paper on Gold Sterilization and the Recession 1937-38 in which he presents quite strong evidence that the gold sterilization caused the US money supply to drop sharply in 1937. That being said, that explanation does not fit perfectly well with the price action in the stock market and commodity prices either.

Hence, I believe we need to take into account the combined actions of the of the US Treasury (including comments from President Roosevelt) and the Federal Reserve caused a marked shift in expectations in a strongly deflationary direction. In their 2006 paper Eggertsson and Pugsley “The Mistake of 1937: A General Equilibrium Analysis” make this point forcefully (even though I have some reservations about their discussion of the monetary transmission mechanism). In my view it is very clear that both the Roosevelt administration and the Fed were quite worried about the inflationary risks and as a consequence increasing signaled that more monetary tightening would be forthcoming.

In that sense the 1937 recession is a depressing reminder of the strength of the of the Chuck Norris effect – here in the reserve form. The fact that investors, consumers etc were led to believe that monetary conditions would be tightened caused an increase in money demand and led to an passive tightening of monetary conditions in the second half of 1937 – and things obviously were not made better by the Fed and US Treasury actually then also actively tightened monetary conditions.

The risk of repeating the mistakes of 1937 – we did that in 2011! Will we do it again in 2012 or 2013?

So why is all this important? Because we risk repeating the mistakes of 1937. In 1937 US policy makers reacted to rising commodity prices and inflation fears by tightening monetary policy and even more important created uncertainty about the outlook for monetary policy. At the time the Federal Reserve failed to clearly state what nominal policy rule it wanted to implemented and as a result caused a spike in money demand.

So where are we today? Well, we might be on the way out of the crisis after the Federal Reserve and particularly the ECB finally came to acknowledged that a easing of monetary conditions was needed. However, we are already hearing voices arguing that rising commodity prices are posing an inflationary risk so monetary policy needs to be tighten and as neither the Fed nor the ECB has a very clearly defined nominal target we are doomed to see continued uncertainty about when and if the ECB and the Fed will tighten monetary policy. In fact this is exactly what happened in 2011. As the Fed’s QE2 pushed up commodity prices and the ECB moved to prematurely tighten monetary policy. To make matters worse extremely unclear signals about monetary policy from European central bankers caused market participants fear that the ECB was scaling back monetary easing.

Therefore we can only hope that this time around policy makers will have learned the lesson from 1937 and not prematurely tighten monetary policy and even more important we can only hope that central banks will become much more clear regarding their nominal targets. Any market monetarist will of course tell you that central bankers should not fear overdoing their monetary easing if they clearly define their nominal targets (preferably a NGDP level target) – that would ensure that monetary policy is not tightened prematurely and a well-timed exist from monetary easing is ensured.

PS I have an (very unclear!) idea that the so-called Tripartite Agreement from September 1936 b the US, Great Britain and France  to stabilize their nations’ currencies both at home and in the international FX markets might have played a role in causing a change in expectations as it basically told market participants that the days of “currency war” and competitive devaluations had come to an end. Might this have been seen as a signal to market participants that central banks would not compete to increase the money supply? This is just a hypothesis and I have done absolutely no work on it, but maybe some young scholar would like to pick you this idea?

The biggest cost of nominal stability is ignorance

Anybody who has visited a high inflation country (there are few of those around today, but Belarus is one) will notice that the citizens of that country is highly aware of the developments in nominal variables such as inflation, wage growth, the exchange rates and often also the price of gold and silver.

I am pretty sure that an average Turkish housewife in the Turkish countryside in 1980s would be pretty well aware of the level of inflation, the lira exchange rate both against the dollar and the D-Mark and undoubtedly would know the gold price. This is only naturally as high and volatile inflation had a great impact on the average Turk’s nominal (and real!) income. In fact for most Turks at that time the most important economic decision she would make would be how she would hedge against nominal instability.

The greatest economic crisis in world history always involve nominal instability whether deflation or inflation. Likewise economic prosperity seems to be conditioned on nominal stability.

The problem, however, is that when you have massive nominal instability then everybody realises this, but contrary to this when you have a high degree of monetary stability then households, companies and most important policy makers tend to become ignorant of the importance of monetary policy in ensuring that nominal stability.

I have touched on this topic in a couple of earlier posts. First, I have talked about the “Great Moderation economist” who “grew” up in the Great Moderation era and as a consequence totally disregards the importance of money and therefore come up with pseudo economic theories of the business cycle and inflation. The point is that during the Great Moderation nominal variables in the US and Europe more or less behaved as if the Federal Reserve and the ECB were targeting a NGDP growth level path and therefore basically was no recessions and inflationary problems.

As I argued in another post (“How I would like to teach Econ 101”) the difference between microeconomy and macroeconomy is basically the introduction of money and price rigidities (and aggregation). However, when we target the NGDP level we basically fix MV in the equation of exchange and that means that we de facto “abolish” the macroeconomy. That also means that we effectively do away with recessions and inflationary and deflationary problems. In such a world the economic agents will not have to be concerned about nominal factors. In such a world the only thing that is important is real factors. In a nominally stable world the important economic decisions are what education to get, where to locate, how many hours to works etc. In a nominally unstable world all the time will be used to figure out how to hedge against this instability. Said in another way in a world where monetary institutions are constructed to ensure nominal stability either through a nominal GDP level target or Free Banking money becomes neutral.

A world of nominal stability obviously is what we desperately want. We don’t have that anymore. The great nominal stability – and therefore as real stability – of the Great Moderation is gone. So one would believe that it should be easy to convince everybody that nominal instability is at the core of our problems in Europe and the US.

However, very few economists and even fewer policy makers seem to get it. In fact it has often struck me as odd how many central bankers seem to have very little understanding of monetary theory and it sometimes even feels like they are not really interested in monetary matters. Why is that? And why do central bankers – in especially Europe – keep spending more time talking about fiscal reforms and labour market reform than about talking about ensuring nominal stability?

I believe that one of the reasons for this is that the Great Moderation basically made it economically rational for most of us not to care about monetary matters. We lived in a micro world where there where relatively few monetary distortions and money therefore had a very little impact on economic decisions.

Furthermore, because monetary policy was extremely credible and economic agents de facto expected the central banks to deliver a stable growth level path of nominal GDP monetary policy effectively became “endogenous” in the sense that it was really expectations (and our friend Chuck Norris) that ensured NGDP stability . Hence, during the Great Moderation any “overshoot” in money supply growth was counteracted by a similar drop in money-velocity (See also my earlier post on  “The inverse relationship between central banks’ credibility and the credibility of monetarism”).

Therefore, when nominal stability had been attained in the US and Europe in the mid-1980s monetary policy became very easy. The Federal Reserve and the ECB really did not have to do much. Market expectations in reality ensured that nominal stability was maintained. During that period central bankers perfected the skill of looking and and sounding like credible central bankers. But in reality many central bankers around the really forgot about monetary theory. Who needs monetary theory in a micro world?

We are therefore now in that paradoxical situation that the great nominal stability of the Great Moderation makes it so much harder to regain nominal stability because most policy makers became ignorant of the importance of money in ensuring nominal stability.

Today it seems unbelievable that policy makers failed to see the monetary causes for the Great Depressions and policy makers in 1970s would refuse to acknowledge the monetary causes of the Great Inflation. But unfortunately policy makers still don’t get it – the cause of economic crisis is nearly always monetary and we can only get out of this mess if we understand monetary theory. The only real cost of the Great Moderation was the monetary theory became something taught by economic historians. It is about time policy makers study monetary theory – it is no longer enough to try to look credible when everybody know you have failed.

PS there is also an investment perspective on this discussion – as investors in a nominal stable world tend to become much more leveraged than in a world of monetary instability. That is fine as long as nominal stability persists, but when it breaks down then deleveraging becomes the name of the game.

Monetary policy can’t fix all problems

You say that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Reading the Market Monetarist blogs including my own one could easing come to the conclusion that we are the “hammer boys” that scream at any problem out there “NGDP targeting will fix it!” However, nothing can be further from the truth.

Unlike keynesians Market Monetarists do think that monetary policy should be used to “solve” some problems with “market failure”. Rather we believe that monetary policy should avoid creating problems on it own. That is why we want central banks to follow a clearly defined policy rule and as we think recessions as well as bad inflation/deflation (primarily) are results of misguided monetary policies rather than of market failures we don’t think of monetary policy as a hammer.

Rather we believe in Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So monetary policy determines nominal variables – nominal spending/NGDP, nominal wages, the price level, exchange rates and inflation. We also clearly acknowledges that monetary policy can have real impact – in the short-run the Phillips curve is not vertical so monetary policy can push real GDP above the structural level of GDP and reduce unemployment temporarily. But the long-run Phillips curve certainly is vertical. However, unlike Keynesians we do not see a need to “play” this short-term trade off. It is correct that NGDP targeting probably also would be very helpful in a New Keynesian world, however, we are not starting our analysis at some “social welfare function” that needs to be maximized – there is not a Phillips curve trade off on which policy makers should choose some “optimal” combination of inflation and unemployment – as for example John Taylor basically claims. In that sense Market Monetarists certainly have much more faith in the power of the free market than John Talyor (and that might come to a surprise to conservative and libertarian critics of Market Monetarism…).

What we, however, do indeed argue is that if you commit mistakes you fix it yourself and that also goes for central banks. So if a central bank directly or indirectly (through it’s historical actions) has promised to deliver a certain nominal target then it better deliver and if it fails to do so it better correct the mistake as soon as possible. So when the Federal Reserve through its actions during the Great Moderation basically committed itself and “promised” to US households, corporations and institutions etc. that it would deliver 5% NGDP growth year in and year out and then suddenly failed to so in 2008/9 then it committed a policy mistake. It was not a market failure, but rather a failure of monetary policy. That failure the Fed obviously need to undo. So when Market Monetarists have called for the Fed to lift NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend then it is not some kind of vulgar-keynesian we-will-save-you-all policy, but rather it is about the undoing the mistakes of the past. Monetary policy is not about “stimulus”, but about ensuring a stable nominal framework in which economic agents can make their decisions.

Therefore we want monetary policy to be “neutral” and therefore also in a sense we want monetary policy to become invisible. Monetary policy should be conducted in such a way that investors and households make their investment and consumption decisions as if they lived in a Arrow-Debreu world or at least in a world free of monetary distortions. That also means that the purpose of monetary policy is NOT save investors and other that have made the wrong decisions. Monetary policy is and should not be some bail out mechanism.

Furthermore, central banks should not act as lenders-of-last-resort for governments. Governments should fund its deficits in the free markets and if that is not possible then the governments will have to tighten fiscal policy. That should be very clear. However, monetary policy should not be used as a political hammer by central banks to force governments to implement “reforms”. Monetary policy should be neutral – also in regard to the political decision process. Central banks should not solve budget problems, but central banks should not create fiscal pressures by allowing NGDP to drop significantly below the target level. It seems like certain central banks have a hard time separating this two issues.

Monetary policy should not be used to puncture bubbles either. However, some us – for example David Beckworth and myself – do believe that overly easy monetary policy under some circumstances can create bubbles, but here it is again about avoiding creating problems rather about solving problems. Hence, if the central bank just targets a growth path for the NGDP level then the risk of bubbles are greatly reduced and should they anyway emerge then it should not be task of monetary policy to solve that problem.

Monetary policy can not increase productivity in the economy. Of course productivity growth is likely to be higher in an economy with monetary stability and a high degree of predictability than in an economy with an erratic conduct of monetary policy. But other than securing a “neutral” monetary policy the central bank can not and should not do anything else to enhance the general level of wealth and welfare.

So monetary policy and NGDP level targeting are not some hammers to use to solve all kind of actual and perceived problems, but  who really needs a hammer when you got Chuck Norris?

Marcus Nunes has a related comment, but from a different perspective.

How much QE is needed with a NGDP target?

Today I got an interesting question: “does NGDP targeting equate to more quantitative easing (QE) of monetary policy?”.

The simple answer is that it all depends on Chuck Norris, or rather on the Chuck Norris effect. I have earlier defined the Chuck Norris effect in the following way:

“You don’t have to print more money to ease monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target.”

Let’s say we have a central bank – for example the Federal Reserve that tomorrow announces a target for the level of nominal GDP (NGDP) 15% higher than the present level and that it will hit that target within 24 months.

The “clever” reader would of course ask how you can achieve that target with interest rates at near zero. Well, through quantitative easing, of course – by printing money. Or rather by increasing the supply of money more than the demand for money.

So the relevant measure is not the supply of money, but rather the supply of money relative to demand for the dollar. The demand for money of course is extremely dependent on the expectation of the future value of money.

So let’s assume that the announcement of the +15% NGDP level target is credible – what would happen? This announcement would effectively mean that the central bank would try to reduce the purchasing power of the money it issues, which effectively of course would equate to “burning” households and companies cash holdings. If we know that the value of cash we have today will be worth less tomorrow we would course do everything to get rid of that cash – that goes for households, banks, companies and institutions.

This is key for how the transmission mechanism works under credible NGDP level targeting. The expectation of a 15% increase in NGDP would cause de-hoarding of cash, which is the same as to say that private consumption and investments would increase, banks would increase lending (ease credit conditions) and the currency would weaken, which would spur exports. This would automatically lead to an increase in NGDP.

Hence, if the Chuck Norris effect is strong enough then the central bank could achieve its NGDP target without undertaking any QE at all.

In the “real world” it is unlikely that any central bank will be able to raise NGDP by 15% without actually increasing money supply. After all, the problem in the present crisis is exactly that the major central banks of the world are lacking credibility about their targets – otherwise for example market expectations in the eurozone would not be below 2%. Therefore, to get the needed credibility the central bank would probably need to announce clearly that it would undertake unlimited amounts of QE if needed to achieve its +15% NGDP target level and probably also define through which channel the increase in the money supply would occur – for example, through the buying of foreign currency (which in our view would probably be the most effective as you would circumvent the crisis-hit banking sector), or through buying or government or corporate bonds, etc.

However, if this were done it is likely that the goal of lifting NGDP by 15% could be achieved by printing significantly less “extra” money than if it simply implemented QE without a clear target of what it wants to achieve. So once again, the central banks need to call in Chuck Norris. It’s all about the anchoring of expectations and you will only achieve this by announcing a credit NGDP and credible strategy of how to achieve it.

Six central banks take action, but where is Chuck Norris?

Today, the Federal Reserve, the ECB, Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank announced a coordinated action to lower the pricing on the existing temporary US dollar liquidity swap arrangements by 50bp.

This is especially important the European financial sector, which remains underfunded in US dollars and as such the move from the central banks easing strains in the European financial markets.

Judging from the initial market reaction this is rightly taken to be monetary easing – especially easing of US monetary policy – stock prices rose, the dollar weakened and commodities prices spiked.

Monetary policy, however,  works primarily through expectations and since the six central banks who took action today have said nothing about what they want to achieve in terms of monetary policy targets we are unlikely to have a strong and long lasting impact of this. What we are missing here is the Chuck Norris effect. The central banks need to announce a target – for example that they want to increase NGDP in the euro zone by 10 or 15%.

I have already discussed a “crazy idea” to for the major global central banks to take action to ease monetary policy with a coordinated “devaluation” of the dollar, the euro, the yen etc. against a basket of commodities. Today’s action from the six central banks show that it can be done. Monetary policy is very powerful – so why not use it?
Update 1: Scott Sumner also has a comment on the global monetary action.

Update 2: I have in a number of previous post argued against discretionary monetary “stimulus” and argued that NGDP targeting is not about “fine tuning”. In that regard Market Monetarists should be skeptical about today’s monetary easing even though it is helpful in demonstrating the power of monetary policy and is at least helps curb the crisis – at least in the short-term. See my earlier comments: “Adam Posen calls for more QE – that’s fine, but…”, “NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy” and “Roth’s Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability”

Adam Posen calls for more QE – that’s fine, but…

Adam Posen who sits on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has a comment in on New York Times’ website.

Adam Posen is known to favour aggressive quantitatively easing in the present situation and in his piece he argues strongly that both the ECB and the Federal Reserve should follow the lead from the BoE and step up aggressive QE.

Posen rightly criticize the Fed, the BoE and the ECB with being too reluctant to do the “right thing” and in many ways his comments resembles my own critique of policy makers as being “Calvinist” in their thinking.

Posen is also right in arguing that more definitely is needed in both Europe and the US in terms of easing monetary conditions, but I have often argued that Market Monetarists are not in favour of discretionary policies (See here and here). We want to see QE within a proper framework of NGDP level targeting and not discretionary monetary “stunts”. The experience with both QE1 and QE2 in the US shows that unless is anchored within a proper framework then the impact on NGDP expectations are likely to be relatively short-lived.

I think that there might be some disagreement among Market Monetarists here and I guess that for example Scott Sumner would be happy to take whatever we can get, while I personally is more skeptical. If QE is done in an ad hoc fashion outside of a clearly defined policy framework then I fear it will undermine the longer-term arguments for NGDP level targeting. Some are already arguing that QE did not work – I think QE works very well if it is done within a proper framework, but how can we convince the skeptics?

That does of course not mean that I would vote against more QE if I for example was on the BoE’s MPC or the FOMC (there is no chance that will ever happen…). And it is quite obvious that the ECB need to ease monetary policy right now and rather aggressively – even within ECB’s present framework.

Anthony Evans seem to share my concerns about QE without a proper framework. See Anthony’s comment here and here.

See also Marcus Nunes and Scott Sumner on Adam Posen’s comment.

PS Theoretically I also disagree quite a bit with Posen as it seems like he think that the monetary transmission mechanism works primarily via lower bond yields. It’s basic MM knowledge that successful monetary easing (increased NGDP expectations) will increase bond yields. See my previous comment the transmission mechanism here. Even though I am skeptical about Posen’s call for ad hoc monetary easing I in fact think that monetary policy with the help of the Chuck Norris Effect is much more powerful than Posen seems to think.

British style Binge-drinking and QE – all we need is Chuck Norris

Here is quote of the day:

“being surprised about why QE doesn’t work when you’re trying to keep inflation expectations at 2% is like being surprised why people don’t have a party at a “free” bar if you make it clear you will remove alcohol from anyone who starts to feel drunk”.

This is Anthony Evans in City AM on Bank of England’s conduct of monetary policy. I think this is excellent – the Bank of England should call in Chuck Norris.

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