Ukraine should adopt an ‘Export Price Norm’

It has not be a great year for Emerging Markets and the next Emerging Markets country to worry about could very well be Ukraine.

This is what my Danske Bank colleague Sanna Kurronen has to say about Ukraine:

We have been expecting a soft devaluation of the Ukrainian hryvnia for some time, as the artificially strong exchange rate is creating severe imbalances in the economy. Currently, we see it as a likely scenario that Ukraine will allow soft devaluation in accordance with the IMF, which would lead to a 10% devaluation of the currency and then move to a managed float regime following the Russian example. However, as the necessary devaluation has been continuously postponed, it is beginning to seem more likely that the devaluation will be more dramatic.

GDP has been contracting for a year now in Ukraine as domestic production has been declining significantly. Yet, retail sales growth was still 6.7% year-on-year in August, supported by low inflation and rapid wage growth. A large current account deficit has been putting a pressure on the hryvnia, which has led to a rapid deterioration in Ukrainian foreign exchange reserves. The reserves are already at a critical level, below three months’ worth of imports. As market sentiment remains vulnerable for emerging markets, we believe external debt issuance is now very difficult for Ukraine and that significant debt redemptions are ahead.

A little more than a third of outstanding loans to both households and firms in Ukraine are still foreign-currency denominated. This makes devaluation politically very difficult. Nevertheless, we believe it is a good time for Ukraine to close a deal with the IMF, hike domestic gas tariffs and allow devaluation of the currency. Co-operation with the IMF would of course reduce the country’s independence, but only temporarily. The other alternative would be closer co-operation with Russia, which might have less predictable consequences. A hike in gas tariffs would speed up inflation, but the CPI is now around 0%, so there is room for tariff increases. The presidential election is still some time away (in March 2015), which allows the economy to grow while the election draws nearer. By postponing a necessary devaluation of the currency, Ukraine risks a severe collapse in its currency, whereas the IMF could provide the tools for a more restrained devaluation.

This is very much a story of fear-of-floating (due to significant foreign currency lending) and regime uncertainty (the political situation is nearly by definition always extremely uncertain).

Ukraine’s fundamental problem is an extremely dysfunctional political system and all other problems seems to smaller or large extent to be a function of the fundamental “regime uncertainty” in the country. However, purely looking at the monetary side of things it is clear that Ukraine should move towards a much more “floating” exchange rate or alternatively introduce a variation of what I have termed an Export-Price-Norm (EPN).

Ukraine could introduce an Export Price Norm by pegging the hryvnia to a basket of US dollars and the price of the country’s main export products – steel and agricultural products. That I believe would do a great deal to stabilize aggregate demand growth in the Ukrainian economy and at the same time introduce a lot more rule-based monetary policy in Ukraine. Something badly needed in a country known for extremely low levels of transparency in economic policy making.

If the hryvina was pegged to a basket of the dollar and the price of the main export goods then the hryvina would automatically weaken if the price of for example steel or agricultural products drop. That would lead to an significant stabilization of export prices (measured in hryvina), which on its own would do a great deal to stabilize overall aggregate demand in the economy. It would not be perfect, but it certainly be much better than the present quasi-pegged exchange rate regime and would likely also work better than a freely floating currency.

If you want to read more on why I think an Export Price Norm would work well for Emerging Markets commodity exporters see more here in the case of Angola, Russia, VenezuelaMalaysia and South Sudan.

Ukraine NGDP steel

The Sudanese Pound – another Troubled Currency

A couple of days ago I wrote about Steve Hanke’s new Troubled Currencies project. The project presently covers Argentina, Iran, North Korea, Syria andVenezuela. However, I think Steve now has to expand the list with the Sudanese pound.

This is from Reuters yesterday:

Sudan’s currency has fallen to a record low against the dollar on the black market since South Sudan started reducing cross-border oil flows in a row over alleged support for rebels, dealers said.

There is little foreign trading in the Sudanese pound but the black market rate is an important indicator of the mood of the business elite and of ordinary people left weary by years of economic crises, ethnic conflicts and wars.

The rate is also watched by foreign firms such as cellphone operators Zain and MTN and by Gulf banks who sell products in pounds and then struggle to convert profits into dollars. Gulf investors also hold pound-denominated Islamic bonds sold by the central bank.

On Wednesday, one dollar bought 7.35 pounds on the black market – which has become the business benchmark – compared to 7 last week, black market dealers said. The central bank rate is around 4.4.

The pound has more than halved in value since South Sudan became independent in July 2011, taking with it three-quarters of the united country’s oil output. Oil was the driver of the economy and source for dollars needed for imports.

Last week, South Sudan said it would close all oil wells by the end of July after Sudan notified it a month ago it would halt cross-border oil flows unless Juba gave up support for rebels. South Sudan denies the claims.

Flows had only resumed in April after an earlier 16-month oil shutdown following South Sudan’s secession.

Interesting it is not only Sudan that has a currency/inflation problem. The same has indeed been the case for South Sudan, which initially after it became independent in 2011 saw a sharp spike in inflation.

Paradoxically enough the cause of the spike in inflation in South Sudan was the same as in Sudan – an South Sudanese oil boycott of Sudan. Hence,  the cut in oil sales from South Sudan to Sudan caused a sharp drop in the South Sudanese government’s oil revenue. That led the government to effectively force the new South Sudan central bank to fund the revenue shortfall by letting the money printing press work overtime.

As far as I know it was initially considered that South Sudan should implement Steve’s favourite monetary solution for countries like Sudan and South Sudan – a currency board.

Even though I am no big fan of currency boards I would agree with Steve that it could be the right solution for countries with extremely weak institutions such as Sudan and South Sudan. Another possibility could simply be to just dollarize and completely give up having their own currencies. My favourite solution for South Sudan would be a currency board, but with a twist – the Sudan Sudanese pound should be pegged to the price of oil rather than to another currency. This of course would be a strict form of the Export Price Norm (EPN), while I think complete dollarization would be the best solution for Sudan. Needless to say both Sudan and South Sudan should get rid of all capital and currency controls.

Finally it should be noted that while inflation seems to be getting out of control in Sudan inflation in South Sudan has been coming down significantly over the past year.

PS While the monetary situation is getting worse in Sudan the situation in Egypt apparently is improving and the black market for the Egyptian pounds seem to be “vanishing” according to a blog post from Steve today.

PBoC governor Zhou Xiaochuan should give Jeff Frankel a call (he is welcome to call me as well)

Jeffrey Frankel of course is a long-term advocate of NGDP targeting, but recently he has started to advocate that if central banks continue to target inflation then they should target producer prices (the GDP deflator) rather than consumer prices. As anybody who reads this blog knows I tend to agree with this position.

Jeff among other places has explained his position in his 2012 paper “Product Price Targeting—A New Improved Way of Inflation Targeting”In this paper Jeff explains why it makes more sense for central banks to target product prices rather than consumer prices.

Terms of trade volatility poses a serious challenge to the inflation targeting (IT) approach to monetary policy. IT had been the favoured monetary regime in many quarters. But the shocks of the last five years have shown some serious limitations to IT, much as the currency crises of the late 1990s showed some serious limitations to exchange rate targeting. There are many variations of IT: focusing on headline versus core CPI, price level versus inflation, forecasted inflation versus actual, and so forth. Some interpretations of IT are flexible enough to include output in the target at relatively short horizons. But all orthodox interpretations focus on the CPI as the choice of price index. This choice may need rethinking in light of heightened volatility in prices of commodities and, therefore, in the terms of trade in many countries.

A CPI target can lead to anomalous outcomes in response to terms of trade fluctuations. Textbook theory says it is helpful for exchange rates to accommodate terms-of-trade shocks. If the price of imported oil rises in world markets, a CPI target induces the monetary authority to tighten money
enough to appreciate the currency—the wrong direction for accommodating an adverse movement in the terms of trade. If the price of the export commodity rises in world markets, a CPI target prevents monetary tightening consistent with appreciation as called for in response to an improvement in the terms of trade. In other words, the CPI target gets it exactly backward.

An alternative is to use a price index that reflects a basket of goods that the country in question produces, including those exported, in place of an index that reflects the basket of goods consumed, including those imported. It could be an index of export prices alone or a broader index of all goods produced domestically. I call the proposal to use a broad output-based price index as the anchor for monetary policy Product Price Targeting (PPT).

It is clear that Jeff’s PPT proposal is related to his suggestion that commodity exporters should target export prices – what he calls Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP) and I have termed the Export Price Norm (EPN). A PPT or PEP/EPN is obviously closer to the the Market Monetarist ideal of targeting the level of nominal GDP than a “normal” inflation target based on consumer prices is. In that regard it should be noted that the prices in nominal GDP is the GDP deflator, which is the price of goods produced in the economy rather than the price of goods consumed in the economy.

The Chinese producer price deflation

The reason I am writing about Jeff PPT’s proposal this morning is that I got reminded of it when I saw an article on CNBC.com on Chinese producer prices today. This is from the article:

The deflationary spiral in China’s producer prices that has plagued factories in the mainland for 16 consecutive months highlights the weakening growth momentum in the world’s second largest economy, said economists…

…The producer price index (PPI) dropped 2.7 percent in June from the year ago period, official data showed on Tuesday, compared to a fall of 2.9 percent in May. Producer prices in China have been declining since February 2012, weighed down by falling commodity prices, overcapacity and weakening demand.

…China’s consumer inflation, however, accelerated in June, driven by a rise in food prices.

China’s consumer price index (CPI) rose 2.7 percent in June from a year earlier, slightly higher than a Reuters forecast of 2.5 percent, and compared to a 2.1 percent tick up in the previous month. However, June’s reading is well under the central bank’s 3.5 percent target for 2013.

This I think pretty well illustrates Jeff’s point. If the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) was a traditional – ECB style – inflation target’er focusing solely on consumer prices then it would be worried about the rise in inflation, while if the PBoC on the other hand had a producer price target then it would surely now move to ease monetary policy.

Measuring Chinese monetary policy “tightness” based on PPT

In the pre-crisis period from 2000 to 2007 Chinese producer prices on average grew 2.3% y/y. Therefore, lets say that the PBoC de facto has targeted a 2-2.5% level path for producer prices. The graph below compares the actual level of producer prices in China (Index 2000=100) with a 2% and a 2.5% path respectively.  We can see that producer prices started to decline during the second part of 2011 and dropped below the 2.5% path more or less at the same time and dropped below the 2% path in the last couple of months. So it is probably safe to say that based on a PPT measure Chinese monetary policy has become tighter over the past 18 months or so and have become excessively tight within the last couple of quarters.

PPI China

The picture that emerges from using a ‘Frankel benchmark’ for monetary policy “tightness” hence is pretty much in line with what we see from other indicators of monetary conditions – the money supply, NGDP, FX reserve accumulation and market indicators.

It therefore also seems fair to say that while monetary tightening probably was justified in early 2010 one can hardly justify further monetary tightening at this stage. In fact there are pretty good reasons – including PPT – that Chinese monetary policy has become excessive tight and I feel pretty confident that that is exactly what Jeff Frankel would tell governor Zhou if he gave him a call.

Angola should adopt an ‘Export-Price-Norm’ to escape the ‘China shock’

It might be a surprise to most people but one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the last 10-15 years has been Angola. A combination of structural reforms and a commodity boom have boosted growth in the oil-rich African country. However, Angola is, however, at a crossroad and the future of the boom might very well now be questioned.

It is monetary tightening in China, which is now threatening the boom. The reason for this is that Angola has received significant direct investments from China over the past decade and the rising oil prices have fueled oil exports. However, as the People’s Bank of China continues to tighten monetary conditions in China it will likely have two effects. First, it is likely to reduce Chinese investments – also into Angola. Second, the slowdown in the Chinese economy undoubtedly is a key reason for the decline in oil prices. Both things are obviously having a direct negative impact on the Angolan economy.

Angola’s monetary policy is likely to exacerbate the ‘China shock’ 

This is how the IMF describes Angola’s monetary regime:

Angola’s de facto exchange arrangement has been classified as “other managed” since October 2009. The Banco Nacional de Angola (BNA) intervenes actively in the foreign exchange market in order to sterilize foreign currency inflows in the form of taxes paid by oil companies. Auctions were temporarily suspended from April 20 to October 1, 2009 leading to the establishment of a formal peg. Since the resumption of auctions, the kwanza has depreciated. However, the authorities maintain strong control over the exchange rate, which is the main anchor for the monetary policy. The BNA publishes a daily reference rate, which is computed as the transactionweighted average of the previous day’s rates negotiated with commercial banks. Banks and exchange bureaus may deal among themselves and with their customers at rates that can be freely negotiated provided they do not exceed the reference rate by more than 4 percent.

Hence Angola de facto operates a pegged exchange rate regime and it is pretty clear in my view that this regime is likely to exacerbate the negative impact from the ‘China shock’.

The China shock is likely to lead to depreciation pressures on the Angolan kwanza in two ways. First the drop in global oil prices is likely to push down Angolan export prices – more or less by a one-to-one ratio. Second, the expected drop in Chinese investment activity is likely to also reduce Chinese direct investments into Angola. The depreciation pressures could potentially become very significant. However, if the Angolan central bank tries to maintain a quasi-pegged exchange rate then these depreciation pressures will automatically translate into a significant monetary tightening. The right thing to do is therefore obvious to allow (if needed) the kwanza to depreciate to adjust to the shock.

There are two ways of ensuring such depreciation. The first one is to simply to allow the kwanza to float freely. That however, would necessitate serious reforms to deepen the Angolan capital markets and the introduction of an nominal target – such as either an inflation target or an NGDP target. Even though financial markets reforms undoubtedly are warranted I have a hard time seeing that happening fast. Therefore, an alternative option – the introduction of a Export Price Norm (EPN) is – is clearly something the Angolan authorities should consider. What I call EPN Jeff Frankel originally termed Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP).

I have long been a proponent of the Export Price Norm for commodity exporting economies such as Russia, Australia or Angola (or Malaysia for that matter). The idea with EPN is that the commodity exporting economy pegs the currency to the price of the commodity it exports such as oil in the case of Angola. Alternatively the currency should be pegged to a basket of a foreign currency (for example the dollar) and the oil price. The advantage of EPN is that it will combine the advantages of both a floating exchange (an “automatic” adjustment to external shocks) and of a pegged exchange rate (a rule based monetary policy). Furthermore, for a country like Angola where nearly everything that is being produced in the country is exported the EPN will effectively be an quasi-NGDP target as export growth and aggregate demand growth (NGDP growth) will be extremely highly correlated. So by stabilizing the export price in local currency the central bank will effectively be stabilizing aggregate demand and NGDP.

Operationally it would be extremely simple for the Angolan central bank to implement an EPN regime as al it would take would be to target a basket of for example oil and US dollars, which would not be very different operationally than what it is already doing. Without having done the ‘math’ I would imagine that a 20% oil and 80% US dollar basket would be fitting. That would provide a lot of projection against the China shock.

And if it turns out that China is not slowing and oil prices again will rise an EPN will just lead to an ‘automatic’ appreciation of the kwanza and monetary tightening of Angolan monetary conditions and in that way be a very useful tool in avoiding that skyrocketing oil prices and booming inward investments do not lead to the formation of for example property bubbles (many would argue that there already is a huge property bubble in the Angola economy – take a look here).

Toilet paper shortage is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon

This is from Sky News:

Venezuelans have been hit by a chronic toilet paper shortage, leading to empty supermarket shelves and long queues to snap up the remaining rolls…When new stocks arrive at supermarkets customers have been rushing in to fill their trollies.

It started with a food shortage and now it is the lack of toilet paper that is the latest economic problem in Venezuela. It is pretty clear that Venezuela’s chronic shortages of essential goods are a result of the combination of excessively easy monetary policy and price controls.

If monetary policy is excessive easy you obviously get high and rising inflation. There is only on way of stopping excessive inflation and that is by slowing the money printing press. Instead the Venezuelan government continues to fight inflation with draconian price controls.

The toilet paper shortage is just the latest round of news that confirms the absolutely failed policies of the socialist Venezuelan government, but as usual the government is unwilling to accept any responsibility for the social ills it is causing. Instead the Venezuelan government blames the media:

Commerce minister Alejandro Fleming said “excessive demand” for the tissue had built up due to a “media campaign that has been generated to disrupt the country.”

He said monthly consumption of toilet paper was normally 125 million rolls, but current demand “leads us to think that 40 million more are required”.

“We will bring in 50 million to show those groups that they won’t make us bow down,” he said.

Anybody who have studied economics for 3 minutes of course knows that Fleming’s explanation of the toilet paper shortage is outrageously wrong, but I guess that the Minister himself is unlikely to have problems getting toilet paper supplies himself as the Venezuelan government is massively corrupted and Ministers certainly do not seem to suffer from the social ills that average Venezuelan have to struggle with.

Radical fiscal and monetary reforms are needed 

I have earlier argued that at the core of Venezuela’s economic policies is the fact that the central bank basically has been ordered to finance excessive public spending by letting the printing presses run overtime. There is only one way of stopping the inflation pressures and that is by stopping this monetary funding of public expenditures and then to implement radical monetary reform.

This is reform that I earlier have suggested:

Market Monetarists generally speaking favour nominal GDP targeting or what we also could call nominal demand targeting. For large economies like the US that generally implies targeting the level of NGDP. However, for a commodity exporting economy like Venezuela we can achieve nominal stability by stabilizing the price of the main export good – in the case of Venezuela that is the price of oil measured in Venezuelan bolivar. The reason for this is that aggregate demand in the economy is highly correlated with export revenues and hence with the price of oil.

I have therefore at numerous occasions suggested that commodity exporting countries implement what I have called an Export Price Norm (EPN) and what Jeff Frankel has called a Peg-the Export-Price (PEP) policy.

The idea with EPN is basically that the central bank should peg the country’s currency to the price of the main export good. In the case of Venezuela that obviously would be the price of oil. However, it is not given that an one-to-one relationship between the bolivar and the oil price will ensure nominal stability.

My suggestion is therefore that the bolivar should be pegged to basket of 75% US dollars and 25% oil price. That in my view would view would ensure a considerable degree of nominal stability in Venezuela. So in periods of stable oil prices the Venezuelan bolivar would be more or less “fixed” against the US dollar and that likely would lead to nominal GDP growth in Venezuela that would be slightly higher than in the US (due to catching up effects in Venezuelan productivity), but in periods of rising oil prices the bolivar would strengthen against the dollar, but keep nominal GDP growth fairly stable.

Maybe the toilet paper shortage could convince the new Venezuelan president Maduro to end the Hugo Chavez’s fail policies and implement radical fiscal and monetary reforms – otherwise Venezuela might turn into the smelliest country in the world.

HT Rasmus Ole Hansen

PS This is my blog post #600.

Russia’s slowdown – another domestic demand story

Today I am in to Moscow to do a presentation on the Russian economy. It will be yet another chance to tell one of my pet-stories and that is that growth in nominal GDP in Russia is basically determined by the price of oil measured in rubles. Furthermore, I will stress that changes in the oil price feeds through to the Russian economy not primarily through net exports, but through domestic demand. This is what I earlier have termed the petro-monetary transmission mechanism.

The Russian economy is slowing – it is mostly monetary

In the last couple of quarters the Russian economy has been slowing. This is a direct result of a monetary contraction caused by lower Russian export prices (measured in rubles). Hence, even though the ruble has been “soft” it has not weakened nearly as much as the drop in oil prices and this effectively is causing a tightening of Russian monetary conditions.

oil price rub

This is how the petro-monetary transmission mechanism works. What happens is that when the oil price drops it puts downward pressure on the ruble. If the Russian central bank had been following what I have called Export Price Norm the ruble would have weakened in parallel with the drop in the oil price.

However, the Russian central bank is not allowing the ruble to weaken enough to keep the price of oil measured in rubles stable and as a consequence we effectively are seeing a drop in the Russian foreign exchange reserves (compared to what otherwise would have happened). There of course is a direct (nearly) one-to-one link between the decline in the FX reserve and the decline in the Russian money base. Hence, due to the managed float of the ruble – rather than a freely floating RUB (and a clear nominal target) – we are getting an “automatic”, but unnecessary, tightening of monetary conditions.

This means that there is a fairly close correlation between changes in oil prices measured in rubles and the growth of nominal GDP. The graph below illustrates this quite well.

NGDP russia oil price

I should of course stress that the slowdown in NGDP growth not necessarily a problem. Unemployment has continued to decline in Russia since 2010 and is now at fairly low levels, while inflation recently have been picking up to around 7%. Hence, it is hard to argue that there is a massive demand side problem in Russia. Yes, both nominal and real GDP is slowing, but it is certainly not catastrophic and I strongly believe that the Russian central bank should target 5-8% NGDP growth rather than 20 or 30% NGDP growth (which is what we saw prior to the crisis erupting in 2008-9). In that sense the gradual tightening of monetary conditions we have seen over the last 2 years might have been warranted. The problem, however, is that the Russian central banks is not very clear on want it wants to achieve with its policies.

It is all about domestic demand rather than net exports

Many would instinctively, but wrongly, conclude that the recent drop in oil prices is a drop in net exports and that is the reason for the slowdown in economic activity. However, that is far from right. In fact net export growth has remained fairly stable with Russian exports and imports growing more or less by the same rate. Hence, there has basically been only a small negative impact on GDP growth from the development in net exports.

What of course is happening is that even though export growth has slowed so has import growth as a result of a fairly sharp slowdown in domestic demand – particularly investment growth.

In that sense the present slowdown is quite similar to the massive collapse in economic activity in 2008-9. The difference is of course that what we are seeing now is not a collapse, but simply a slowdown in growth, but the mechanism is the same – monetary conditions have become tighter as the ruble has not weakened enough to “accommodate” the drop in the oil price.

It should be noted that the ruble today is significantly more freely floating than prior and during the 2008-9 crisis. As a result the ruble has moved much more in sync with the oil price than was the case in 2008-9. So while the oil price has gradually declined since the highs of 2011 the ruble has also weakened moderately against the US dollar in this period. However, the net result has nonetheless been that the price of oil measured in ruble has declined by 25-30% since the peak in 2011. Furthermore, the drop in the oil price measured in rubles has further accelerated since March. As a consequence we are likely to see the slowdown in economic activity continue towards the end of the year.

Overall I believe that the  gradual and moderate tightening of monetary conditions in 2010-12 was warranted. However, it is also clear that what we have see in the last couple of months likely is an excessive tightening of monetary conditions.

 The Export Price Norm is still the best solution for Russia

I have earlier argued that the Russian central bank should implement a variation of what I have termed an Export Price Norm (EPN) and what Jeff Frankel calls Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP) to ensure a stable growth rate in nominal GDP.

I think simplest way of doing this would be to include the oil price in the basket of currencies that the Russian central bank is now shadowing (dollars and euros). Hence, I believe that if the Russian central bank announced that it would shadow a basket of 20% oil prices and 40% dollars and 40% euros to ensure stable NGDP growth for example 7% and allowed for a +/-15% fluctuation band around the basket then I believe that you would get a monetary regime that automatically and without policy discretion would provide tremendous nominal stability and fairly low inflation (2-4%). In such a regime most of the changes in monetary policy would be implemented by market forces. Hence, if the oil price dropped the ruble would automatically be depreciated and equally important if the NGDP growth slowed due to other factors – for example a fiscal tightening or financial distress – then the ruble would automatically weak relative to the basket within the fluctuation band. Obviously there might be – rare – occasions where the “mid-point” of the fluctuation band could be changed and market participants should obviously be made aware that the purpose of the regime is not exchange rate stability but nominal stability. In such a set-up the central bank’s policy instrument would be the level for the mid-point for the fluctuation band around the basket.

Alternatively the Russian central bank could also opt for a completely freely floating exchange rate with NGDP targeting or flexible inflation targeting. I, however, would be skeptical about such solution as the domestic Russian financial markets are still quite illiquid and underdeveloped which complicates the conduct of monetary policy. Furthermore, an EPN solution would actually be more rule based than a freely floating ruble regime as a freely floating ruble regime would necessitate regular changes in for example the interest rate (or the money base) to be announced by the central bank. That opens the door for monetary policy to become unnecessarily discretionary.

Russia’s biggest problems are not monetary

It is correct that Market Monetarists seem to be obsessed with talking about monetary policy, but in the case of Russia I would also argue that even though there is a significant need for monetary policy reform monetary policy is not Russia’s biggest problem. In fact I believe the conduction of monetary policy has improved greatly in the last couple of years.

Russia’s biggest problem is structural. The country is struggling with massive overregulation, lack of competition and widespread corruption. There are very esay solutions to this: Deregulation and privatization. Every sane economist would tell you that, but the political reality in Russia means that reforms are painfully slow. In fact if anything corruption seems to have become even more widespread over the past decade.

Russian policy makers need to deal with these issues if they want to boost real GDP growth over the medium term. The Russian central bank can ensure nominal stability but it can do little else to increase real GDP growth. That is a case for the Russian government. On that I am unfortunately not too optimistic, but hope I will be proven wrong.

Ease of doing business russia

PS My story that the drop in oil prices measured in ruble is about domestic demand rather than export growth is of course very similar to the point I have been making about Japanese monetary stimulus. Monetary easing in Japan might be weakening the currency, but it is not about lifting exports, but about boosting domestic demand. That be the way seem to be exactly what is happening in the Japan. See for example this story from Bloomberg from earlier today.

A modest proposal for post-Chavez monetary reform in Venezuela

Let’s just say it as it is – I was very positively surprised by the massive response to my post on the economic legacy of Hugo Chavez. However, as somebody who primarily wants to blog about monetary policy it is a bit frustrating that I attract a lot more readers when I write about dead authoritarian presidents rather than about my favourite topic – monetary policy.

So I guess I have to combine the two themes – dead presidents and monetary policy. Therefore this post on my modest proposal for post-Chavez monetary reform in Venezuela.

It is very clear that a key problem in Venezuela is the high level of inflation, which clearly has very significant negative economic and social implications. Furthermore, the high level of inflation combined with insane price controls have led to massive food and energy shortages in Venezuela in recent years.

Obviously the high level of inflation in Venezuela is due to excessive money supply growth and there any monetary reform should have the purpose of bringing money supply growth under control.

A Export Price Norm will bring nominal stability to Venezuela

Market Monetarists generally speaking favour nominal GDP targeting or what we also could call nominal demand targeting. For large economies like the US that generally implies targeting the level of NGDP. However, for a commodity exporting economy like Venezuela we can achieve nominal stability by stabilizing the price of the main export good – in the case of Venezuela that is the price of oil measured in Venezuelan bolivar. The reason for this is that aggregate demand in the economy is highly correlated with export revenues and hence with the price of oil.

I have therefore at numerous occasions suggested that commodity exporting countries implement what I have called an Export Price Norm (EPN) and what Jeff Frankel has called a Peg-the Export-Price (PEP) policy.

The idea with EPN is basically that the central bank should peg the country’s currency to the price of the main export good. In the case of Venezuela that obviously would be the price of oil. However, it is not given that an one-to-one relationship between the bolivar and the oil price will ensure nominal stability.

My suggestion is therefore that the bolivar should be pegged to basket of 75% US dollars and 25% oil price. That in my view would view would ensure a considerable degree of nominal stability in Venezuela. So in periods of stable oil prices the Venezuelan bolivar would be more or less “fixed” against the US dollar and that likely would lead to nominal GDP growth in Venezuela that would be slightly higher than in the US (due to catching up effects in Venezuelan productivity), but in periods of rising oil prices the bolivar would strengthen against the dollar, but keep nominal GDP growth fairly stable.

 EPN is preferable to a purely fixed exchange rate regime

My friend Steve Hanke has suggested that Venezuela implements a currency board against the dollar and permanently peg the Venezuelan bolivar to the dollar. However, that in my view could have a rather destabilizing impact on the economy.

Imagine a situation where oil prices increase by 30% in a year (that is not usual given what we have seen over the past decade). In that scenario the appreciation pressures on the bolivar would be significant, but as the central bank was pegging the exchange rate money supply growth would increase significantly to curb the strengthening of the currency. That would undoubtedly be inflationary and could potentially lead to a bubble tendencies and an increase the risk of a boom-bust in the economy.

If on the other hand the bolivar had been pegged to 75-25% basket of US dollars and oil then an 30% increase in the oil prices would lead to an appreciation of the bolivar by 7.5% (25% of 30%). That would counteract the inflationary tendencies from the rise in oil prices. Similar in the case of a sharp drop in oil prices then the bolivar would “automatically” weaken as if the bolivar was freely floating and that would offset the negative demand effects of falling oil prices – contrary to what happened in Venezuela in 2008-9 where the authorities tried to keep the bolivar overly strong given the sharp drop in oil prices. This in my view is one of the main cause for the slump in Venezuelan economic activity in 2008-9. That would have been avoided had the Venezuelan central bank operated EPN style monetary regime.

I should stress that I have not done detailed work on what would be the “optimal” mixed between the US dollar and the oil price in a potential bolivar basket. However, that is not the important thing with my proposal. The important thing is that such a policy would provide the Venezuelan economy with an stable nominal anchor while at the time reduce the risk of boom-bust in the Venezuelan economy – contrary to what have been the case in the Chavez years.

Time to get rid of currency and price controls

The massively unsustainable fiscal and monetary policy since 1999 have “forced” the Venezuelan government and central bank to implement draconian measures to control prices and the exchange rate. The currency controls have lead to a large black market for foreign currency in Venezuela and at the same time the price controls have led to massive energy and food shortages in Venezuela.

Obviously one cannot fight inflation and currency depreciation with interventionist policies. Therefore, this policies will have to be abandoned sooner rather than later as the cost of these policies are massive. Furthermore, it is obvious that the arguments for these policies will disappear once monetary policy ensures nominal stability.

End monetary funding of public finances

A key reason for the high level of inflation in Venezuela since 1999 undoubtedly has to be explained by the fact that there is considerable monetary financing of public finances in Venezuela. To end high-inflation it is therefore necessary to stop the central bank funding of fiscal policy. That obviously requires to bring the fiscal house in order. I will not touch a lot more on that issue here, but obviously there is a lot of work to be undertaken here. A place to start would obviously be to initiate a large scale (re)privatization program.

A modest proposal for monetary reform

We can therefore sum up my proposal for monetary reform in Venezuela in the following four points:

1) Introduce an Export Price Norm – peg the Bolivar to a basket of 75% US dollars and 25% oil prices

2) Liberalize capital and currency controls completely

3) Get rid of all price and wage controls

4) Separate fiscal policy and monetary policy – stop monetary funding of the public budget

I doubt that this post will be popular as my latest post on Venezuela, but I think that this post is significantly more important for the future well-being of the Venezuelan economy and a post-Chavez regime should move as fast as possible to implement monetary reform because without monetary reform the Venezuelan economy is unlikely to fully recover from its present crisis.

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Jeffrey Frankel has made a similar proposal for the Gulf States. Have a look at Jeff’s proposal here.

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Update: Steve Hanke has a comment on his suggestion for full dollarization in Venezuela. Even though I prefer my own EPN proposal I must say that Steve’s idea has a lot of appeal given the obvious weakness of public institutions in Venezuela and a very long history (pre-dating Chavez) of monetary mismanagement.

The RBA just reminded us about the “Export Price Norm”

In my view one of the key reasons that Australia avoided recession in 2008-9 was the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) effectively is operating what I earlier have called a “Export Price Norm”. Here is what I earlier had to say about that:

One of the reasons why I think the RBA has been relatively successful is that it effectively has shadowed a policy of what Jeff Frankel calls PEP (Peg the currency to the Export Price) and what I (now) think should be called an “Export Price Norm” (EPN). EPN is basically the open economy version of NGDP level targeting.

If the primary factor in nominal demand changes in the economy is exports – as it tend to be in small open economies and in commodity exporting economies – then if the central bank pegs the price of the currency to the price of the primary exports then that effectively could stabilize aggregate demand or NGDP growth. This is in fact what I believe the RBA – probably unknowingly – has done over the last couple of decades and particularly since 2008. As a result the RBA has stabilized NGDP growth and therefore avoided monetary shocks to the economy.

Under a pure EPN regime the central bank would peg the exchange rate to the export price. This is obviously not what the RBA has done. However, by it’s communication it has signalled that it would not mind the Aussie dollar to weaken and strengthen in response to swings in commodity prices – and hence in swings in Australian export prices. Hence, if one looks at commodity prices measured by the so-called CRB index and the Australian dollar against the US dollar over the last couple of decades one would see that there basically has been a 1-1 relationship between the two as if the Aussie dollar had been pegged to the CRB index. That in my view is the key reason for the stability of NGDP growth over the past two decade. The period from 2004/5 until 2008 is an exception. In this period the Aussie dollar strengthened “too little” compared to the increase in commodity prices – effectively leading to an excessive easing of monetary conditions – and if you want to look for a reason for the Australian property market boom (bubble?) then that is it.

This morning the RBA had it regular monetary policy meeting and see here what the bank had to say:

“The inflation outlook, as assessed at present, would afford scope to ease policy further, should that be necessary to support demand…On the other hand the exchange rate remains higher than might have been expected, given the observed decline in export prices”

This is a pretty clear restatement of the “export price norm” (“the exchange rate remains higher than might have been expected, given the observed decline in export prices”). Note also the wording “support demand”. “Demand” is basically an other word for nominal GDP.

So yes, the RBA did not cut interest rates, but it has used the market and particularly the exchange rate channel to ease monetary conditions. This is pretty much in line with Bennett McCallum’s suggestion that small open-economies that operate monetary policy with interest rates close to zero should utilize the exchange rate as a policy instrument. This is what McCallum has called the MC rule.

So effectively – the RBA is indirectly targeting NGDP and seems to pretty well understand the McCallum’s MC rule as it continues to utilize the “Export Price Norm”. So Australia is hardly my biggest worry at the moment.

The “Export Price Norm” saved Australia from the Great Recession

Milton Friedman once said never to underestimate the importance of luck of nations. I believe that is very true and I think the same goes for central banks. Some nations came through the shock in 2008-9 much better than other nations and obviously better policy and particularly better monetary policy played a key role. However, luck certainly also played a role.

I think a decisive factor was the level of key policy interest rate at the start of the crisis. If interest rates already were low at the start of the crisis central banks were – mentally – unable to ease monetary policy enough to counteract the shock as most central banks did operationally conduct monetary policy within an interest rate targeting regime where a short-term interest rate was the key policy instrument. Obviously there is no limits to the amount of monetary easing a central bank can do – the money base after all can be expanded as much as you would like – but if the central bank is only using interest rates then they will have a problem as interest rates get close to zero. Furthermore, it played a key role whether demand for a country’s currency increased or decreased in response to the crisis. For example the demand for US dollars exploded in 2008 leading to a “passive tightening” of monetary policy in the US, while the demand for for example Turkish lira, Swedish krona or Polish zloty collapsed.

As said, for the US we got monetary tightening, but for Turkey, Sweden and Poland the drop in money was automatic monetary easing. That was luck and nothing else. The three mentioned countries in fact should give reason to be careful about cheering too much about the “good” central banks – The Turkish central bank has done a miserable job on communication, the Polish central bank might have engineered a recession by hiking interest rates earlier this year and the Swedish central bank now seems to be preoccupied with “financial stability” and household debt rather than focusing on it’s own stated inflation target.

In a recent post our friend and prolific writer Lorenzo wrote an interesting piece on Australia and how it has been possible for the country to avoid recession for 21 years. Lorenzo put a lot of emphasis on monetary policy. I agree with that – as recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomena – the key reason has to be monetary policy. However, I don’t want to give the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) too much credit. After all you could point to a number of monetary policy blunders in Australia over the last two decades that potentially could have ended in disaster (see below for an example).

I think fundamentally two things have saved the Australian economy from recession for the last 21 years.

First of all luck. Australia is a commodity exporter and commodity prices have been going up for more than a decade and when the crisis hit in 2008 the demand for Aussie dollars dropped rather than increased and Australia’s key policy rate was relatively high so the RBA could ease monetary policy aggressively without thinking about using other instruments than interest rates. The RBA was no more prepared for conducting monetary policy at the lower zero bound than the fed, the ECB or the Bank of England, but it didn’t need to be as prepared as interest rates were much higher in Australia to begin with – and the sharp weakening of the Aussie dollar obviously also did the RBA’s job easier. In fact I think the RBA is still completely unprepared for conducting monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment. I am not saying that the RBA is a bad central bank – far from it – but it is not necessarily the example of a “super central bank”. It is a central bank, which has done something right, but certainly also has been more lucky than for example the fed or the Bank of England.

Second – and this is here the RBA deserves a lot of credit – the RBA has been conducting it’s inflation targeting regime in a rather flexible fashion so it has allowed occasional overshooting and undershooting of the inflation target by being forward looking and that was certainly the case in 2008-9 where it did not panic as inflation was running too high compared to the inflation target.

One of the reasons why I think the RBA has been relatively successful is that it effectively has shadowed a policy of what Jeff Frankel calls PEP (Peg the currency to the Export Price) and what I (now) think should be called an “Export Price Norm” (EPN). EPN is basically the open economy version of NGDP level targeting.

If the primary factor in nominal demand changes in the economy is exports – as it tend to be in small open economies and in commodity exporting economies – then if the central bank pegs the price of the currency to the price of the primary exports then that effectively could stabilize aggregate demand or NGDP growth. This is in fact what I believe the RBA – probably unknowingly – has done over the last couple of decades and particularly since 2008. As a result the RBA has stabilized NGDP growth and therefore avoided monetary shocks to the economy.

Under a pure EPN regime the central bank would peg the exchange rate to the export price. This is obviously not what the RBA has done. However, by it’s communication it has signalled that it would not mind the Aussie dollar to weaken and strengthen in response to swings in commodity prices – and hence in swings in Australian export prices. Hence, if one looks at commodity prices measured by the so-called CRB index and the Australian dollar against the US dollar over the last couple of decades one would see that there basically has been a 1-1 relationship between the two as if the Aussie dollar had been pegged to the CRB index. That in my view is the key reason for the stability of NGDP growth over the past two decade. The period from 2004/5 until 2008 is an exception. In this period the Aussie dollar strengthened “too little” compared to the increase in commodity prices – effectively leading to an excessive easing of monetary conditions – and if you want to look for a reason for the Australian property market boom (bubble?) then that is it.

This is how close the relationship is between the CRB index and the Aussie dollar (indexed at 100 in 2008):

However, when the Great Recession hit and global commodity prices plummet the RBA got it nearly perfectly right. The RBA could have panicked and hike interest rates to curb the rise in headline consumer price inflation (CPI inflation rose to around 5% y/y) caused by the weakening of the Aussie dollar. It did not do so, but rather allowed the Aussie dollar to weaken significantly. In fact the drop in commodity prices and in the Aussie dollar in 2008-9 was more or less the same. This is in my view is the key reason why Australia avoided recession – measured as two consecutive quarters of negative growth – in 2008-9.

But the RBA could have done a lot better

So yes, there is reason to praise the RBA, but I think Lorenzo goes too far in his praise. A reason why I am sceptical is that the RBA is much too focused on consumer price inflation (CPI) and as I have argued so often before if a central bank really wants to focus on inflation then at least the central bank should be focusing on the GDP deflator rather on CPI.

In my view Australia saw what Hayekian economists call “relative inflation” in the years prior to 2008. Yes, inflation measured by CPI was relatively well-behaved, but looking at the GDP deflator inflationary pressures were clearly building and because the RBA was overly focused on CPI – rather than aggregate demand/NGDP growth or the GDP deflator – monetary policy became excessively easy and the had the RBA not had the luck (and skills?) it had in 2008-9 then the monetary induced boom could have turned into a nasty bust. The same story is visible from studying nominal GDP growth – while NGDP grew pretty steadily around 6% y/y from 1992 to 2002, but from 2002 to 2008 NGDP growth escalated year-by-year and NGDP grew more than 10% in 2008. That in my view was a sign that monetary policy was becoming excessive easy in Australia. In that regard it should be noted that despite the negative shock in 2008-9 and a recent fairly marked slowdown in NGDP growth the actual level of NGDP is still somewhat above the 1992-2002 trend level.

George Selgin has forcefully argued that there is good and bad deflation. Bad deflation is driven by negative demand shocks and good deflation is driven by positive supply shocks. George as consequence of this has argued in favour of what he has called a “productivity norm” – effectively an NGDP target.

I believe that we can make a similar argument for commodity exporters. However, here it is not a productivity shock, but a “wealth shock”. Higher global commodity prices is a positive “wealth shock” for commodity exporters (Friedman would say higher permanent income). This is similar to a positive productivity shock. The way to ensure such “wealth shock” is transferred to the consumers in the economy is through benign consumer price deflation (disinflation) and you get that through a stronger currency, which reduces import prices. However, a drop in global commodity prices is a negative demand shock for a commodity exporting country and that you want to avoid. The way to do that is to allow the currency to weaken as commodity prices drop. This is why the Export Price Norm makes so much sense for commodity exporters.

The RBA effective acted as if it had an (variation of the) Export Price Norm in 2008-9, but certainly failed to do so in the boom years prior to the crisis. In those pre-crisis years the RBA should have tightened monetary policy conditions much more than it did and effectively allowed the Aussie dollar to strengthen more than it did. That would likely have pushed CPI inflation well-below the RBA’s official inflation (CPI) target of 2-3%. That, however, would have been just fine – there is no harm done in consumer price deflation generated by positive productivity shocks or positive wealth shocks. When you become wealthier it should show up in low consumer prices – or at least a slower growth of consumer price inflation.

So what should the RBA do now?

The RBA managed the crisis well, but as I have argued above the RBA was also fairly lucky and there is certainly no reason to be overly confident that the next shock will be handled equally well. I therefore think there are two main areas where the RBA could improve on it operational framework – other than the obvious one of introducing an NGDP level targeting regime.

First, the RBA should make it completely clear to investors and other agents in the economy what operational framework the RBA will be using if the key policy rate where to hit zero.

Second, the RBA should be more clear in it communication about the link between changes in commodity prices (measured in Aussie dollars) and aggregate demand/NGDP and that it consider the commodity-currency link as key element in the Australian monetary transmission mechanism – explicitly acknowledging the importance of the Export Price Norm.

The two points above could of course easily be combined. The RBA could simply announce that it will continue it’s present operational framework, but if interest rates where to drop below for example 1% it would automatically peg the Aussie dollar to the CRB index and then thereafter announce monetary policy changes in terms of the changes to the Aussie dollar-CRB “parity”.

Australian NGDP still remains somewhat above the old trend and as such monetary policy is too loose. However, given the fact that we have been off-trend for a decade it probably would make very little sense to force NGDP back down to the old trend. Rather the RBA should announce that monetary policy is now “neutral” and that it in the future will keep NGDP growth around a 5% or 6% trend (level targeting). Using the trend level starting in for example 2007 in my view would be a useful benchmark.

It is pretty clear that Australian monetary conditions are tightening at the moment, which is visible in both weak NGDP growth and the fact that commodity prices measured in Australian dollars are declining. Furthermore, it should be noted that GDP deflator growth (y/y) turned negative earlier in the year – also indicating sharply tighter monetary conditions. Furthermore, NGDP has now dropped below the – somewhat arbitrary – 2007-12 NGDP trend level. All that could seem to indicate that moderate monetary easing is warranted.

Concluding, the RBA did a fairly good job over the past two decades, but luck certainly played a major role in why Australia has avoided recession and if the RBA wants to preserve it’s good reputation in the future then it needs to look at a few details (some major) in the how it conducts its monetary policy.

PS I could obviously tell the same story for other commodity exporters such as Norway, Canada, Russia, Brazil or Angola for that matter and these countries actually needs the lesson a lot more than the RBA (maybe with the exception of Canada).

PPS Sometimes Market Monetarist bloggers – including myself – probably sound like “if we where only running things then everything would be better”. I would stress that I don’t think so. I am fully aware of the institutional and political constrains that every central banker in the world faces. Furthermore, one could easily argue that central banks by construction will never be able to do a good job and will always be doomed to fail (just ask Pete Boettke or Larry White). As everybody knows I have a lot of sympathy for that view. However, we need to have a debate about monetary policy and how we can improve it – at least as long as we maintain central banks. And I don’t think the answer is better central bankers, but rather I want better institutions. It is correct it makes a difference who runs the central banks, but the institutional framework is much more important and a discussion about past and present failures of central banks will hopefully help shape the ideas to secure more sound monetary systems in the future.

PPPS I should say this post was inspired not only by Lorenzo’s post and my long time thinking the that the RBA had been lucky, but also by Saturos’ comments to my earlier post on Malaysia. Saturos pointed out the difference between the GDP deflator and CPI in Australia to me. That was an important import to this post.

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