International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis

Most Market Monetarist bloggers have a fairly US centric perspective (and from time to time a euro zone focus). I have however from I started blogging promised to cover non-US monetary issues. It is also in the light of this that I have been giving attention to the conduct of monetary policy in open economies – both developed and emerging markets. In the discussion about the present crisis there has been extremely little focus on the international transmission of monetary shocks. As a consequences policy makers also seem to misread the crisis and why and how it spread globally. I hope to help broaden the discussion and give a Market Monetarist perspective on why the crisis spread globally and why some countries “miraculously” avoided the crisis or at least was much less hit than other countries.

The euro zone-US connection

– why the dollar’ status as reserve currency is important

In 2008 when crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused to drop by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply. Reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss franc – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss franc will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over.

Why was the contraction so extreme in for example the PIIGS countries and Russia?

While the Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to counteract the increase in dollar demand it nonetheless acted through a number of measures. Most notably two (and a half) rounds of quantitative easing and the opening of dollar swap lines with other central banks in the world. Other central banks faced bigger challenges in terms of the possibility – or rather the willingness – to respond to the increase in dollar demand. This was especially the case for countries with fixed exchanges regimes – for example Denmark, Bulgaria and the Baltic States – and countries in currencies unions – most notably the so-called PIIGS countries.

I have earlier showed that when oil prices dropped in 2008 the Russian ruble started depreciated (the demand for ruble dropped). However, the Russian central bank would not accept the drop in the ruble and was therefore heavily intervening in the currency market to curb the ruble depreciation. The result was a 20% contraction in the Russian money supply in a few months during the autumn of 2008. As a consequence Russia saw the biggest real GDP contraction in 2009 among the G20 countries and rather unnecessary banking crisis! Hence, it was not a drop in velocity that caused the Russian crisis but the Russian central bank lack of willingness to allow the ruble to depreciate. The CBR suffers from a distinct degree of fear-of-floating and that is what triggered it’s unfortunate policy response.

The ultimate fear-of-floating is of course a pegged exchange rate regime. A good example is Latvia. When the crisis hit the Latvian economy was already in the process of a rather sharp slowdown as the bursting of the Latvian housing bubble was unfolding. However, in 2008 the demand for Latvian lat collapsed, but due to the country’s quasi-currency board the lat was not allowed to depreciate. As a result the Latvian money supply contracted sharply and send the economy into a near-Great Depression style collapse and real GDP dropped nearly 30%. Again it was primarily the contraction in the money supply rather and a velocity collapse that caused the crisis.

The story was – and still is – the same for the so-called PIIGS countries in the euro zone. Take for example the Greek central bank. It is not able to on it’s own to increase the money supply as it is part of the euro area. As the crisis hit (and later escalated strongly) banking distress escalated and this lead to a marked drop in the money multiplier and drop in bank deposits. This is what caused a very sharp drop in the Greek board money supply. This of course is at the core of the Greek crisis and this has massively worsened Greece’s debt woes.

Therefore, in my view there is a very close connection between the international spreading of the crisis and the currency regime in different countries. In general countries with floating exchange rates have managed the crisis much better than countries with countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates. Obviously other factors have also played a role, but at the key of the spreading of the crisis was the monetary policy and exchange rate regime in different countries.

Why did Sweden, Poland and Turkey manage the crisis so well?

While some countries like the Baltic States or the PIIGS have been extremely hard hit by the crisis others have come out of the crisis much better. For countries like Poland, Turkey and Sweden nominal GDP has returned more or less to the pre-crisis trend and banking distress has been much more limited than in other countries.

What do Poland, Turkey and Sweden have in common? Two things.

First of all, their currencies are not traditional reserve currencies. So when the crisis hit money demand actually dropped rather increased in these countries. For an unchanged supply of zloty, lira or krona a drop in demand for (local) money would actually be a passive or automatic easing of monetary condition. A drop in money demand would also lead these currencies to depreciate. That is exactly what we saw in late 2008 and early 2009. Contrary to what we saw in for example the Baltic States, Russia or in the PIIGS the money supply did not contract in Poland, Sweden and Turkey. It expanded!

And second all three countries operate floating exchange rate regimes and as a consequence the central banks in these countries could act relatively decisively in 2008-9 and they made it clear that they indeed would ease monetary policy to counter the crisis. Avoiding crisis was clearly much more important than maintaining some arbitrary level of their currencies. In the case of Sweden and Turkey growth rebound strongly after the initial shock and in the case of Poland we did not even have negative growth in 2009. All three central banks have since moved to tighten monetary policy – as growth has remained robust. The Swedish Riksbank is, however, now on the way back to monetary easing (and rightly so…)

I could also have mentioned the Canada, Australia and New Zealand as cases where the extent of the crisis was significantly reduced due to floating exchange rates regimes and a (more or less) proper policy response from the local central banks.

Fear-of-floating via inflation targeting

Some countries fall in the category between the PIIGS et al and Sweden-like countries. That is countries that suffer from an indirect form of fear-of-floating as a result of inflation targeting. The most obvious case is the ECB. Unlike for example the Swedish Riksbank or the Turkish central bank (TCMB) the ECB is a strict inflation targeter. The ECB does target headline inflation. So if inflation increases due to a negative supply shock the ECB will move to tighten monetary policy. It did so in 2008 and again in 2011. On both occasions with near-catastrophic results. As I have earlier demonstrated this kind of inflation targeting will ensure that the currency will tend to strengthen (or weaken less) when import prices increases. This will lead to an “automatic” fear-of-floating effect. It is obviously less damaging than a strict currency peg or Russian style intervention, but still can be harmful enough – as it clear has been in the case of the euro zone.

Conclusion: The (international) monetary disorder view explains the global crisis

I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also lead to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increase demand for euro, lats or rubles, but because central banks tighten monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as member of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

The international transmission was not caused by “market disorder”, but by monetary policy failure. In a world of freely floating exchange rates (or PEP – currencies pegged to export prices) and/or NGDP level targeting the crisis would never have become a global crisis and I certainly would have no reason to write about it four-five years after the whole thing started.

Obviously, the “local” problems would never have become any large problem had the Fed and the ECB got it right. However, the both the Fed and the ECB failed – and so did monetary policy in a number of other countries.

DISCLAIMER: I have discussed different countries in this post. I would however, stress that the different countries are used as examples. Other countries – both the good, the bad and the ugly – could also have been used. Just because I for example highlight Poland, Turkey and Sweden as good examples does not mean that these countries did everything right. Far from it. The Polish central bank had horrible communication in early 2009 and was overly preoccupied the weakening of the zloty. The Turkish central bank’s communication was horrific last year and the Sweden bank has recently been far too reluctant to move towards monetary easing. And I might even have something positive to say about the ECB, but let me come back on that one when I figure out what that is (it could take a while…) Furthermore, remember I often quote Milton Friedman for saying you never should underestimate the importance of luck of nations. The same goes for central banks.

PS You are probably wondering, “Why did Lars not mention Asia?” Well, that is easy – the Asian economies in general did not have a major funding problem in US dollar (remember the Asian countries’ general large FX reserve) so dollar demand did not increase out of Asia and as a consequence Asia did not have the same problems as Europe. Long story, but just show that Asia was not key in the global transmission of the crisis and the same goes for Latin America.

PPS For more on the distinction between the ‘monetary disorder view’ and the ‘market disorder view’ in Hetzel (2012).

Fear-of-floating, misallocation and the law of comparative advantages

The first commandment of central banking should be thou shall not distort relative prices. However, central bankers often tend to forget this – knowingly or unknowingly. How often have we not heard stern warnings from central bankers that property prices are too high or too low – or that a currency is overvalued or undervalued. And in the last couple of years central bankers have even tried to manipulate the shape of the bond yield curve – just think of the Fed’s “operation twist”.

Central bankers are distorting relative prices in many ways – by for example by trying to prick bubbles (or what they think are bubbles). Sometimes the distortion of relative prices is done unknowingly. The best example of this is when central banks operate an inflation target. Both George Selgin and David Eagle teach us that inflation targeting means that central banks react to supply shocks and thereby distort relative prices. In an open economy this will lead to a distortion of the relative prices between trade goods and non-traded goods.

As I will show below central bankers’ eagerness to distort relative prices is as harmful as other distortions of relative prices for example as a result of protectionism and will often lead to numerous negative side-effects.

The fear-of-floating – the violation of the Law of comparative advantages

I have recently given a bit of attention to the concept of fear-of-floating. Despite being officially committed to floating exchange rates many central banks from time to time intervene in the FX markets to “manage” the currency. As I have earlier noted a good example is the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank), which often has intervened either directly or verbally in the currency market or verbally to try to curb the strengthening of the Norwegian krone. In March for example Norges Bank surprisingly cut interest rates to curb the strengthening of the krone – despite the general macroeconomic situation really warranted a tightening of monetary conditions.

So why is Norge Bank so fearful of a truly free floating krone? The best explanation in the case of Norway is that the central bank’s fears that when oil prices rise then the Norwegian krone will strengthen and hence make the non-oil sectors in the economy less competitive. This is what happened in 2003 when a sharp appreciation of the krone cause an “exodus” of non-oil sector companies from Norway. Hence, there is no doubt that it is a sub-target of Norwegian monetary policy to ensure a “diversified” Norwegian economy. This policy is strongly supported by the Norwegian government’s other policies – for example massive government support for the agricultural sector. Norway is not a EU member – and believe it or not government subsidies for the agricultural sector is larger than in the EU!

However, in the same way as government subsidies for the agricultural sector distort economic allocation so do intervention in the currency market. However, while most economists agree that government subsidies for ailing industries is violating the law of comparative advantages and lead to a general economic lose in the form of lower productivity and less innovation few economists seem to be aware that the fear-of-floating (including indirect fear-of-floating via inflation targeting) have the same impact.

Lets look at an example. Let say that oil prices increase by 30% and that tend to strengthen the Norwegian krone. This is the same as to say that the demand curve in the oil sector has shifted to the right. This will increase the demand for labour and capital in the oil sector. In a freely mobile labour market this will push up salaries both in the oil sector and in the none-oil sector. Hence, the none-oil sector will become less competitive – both as a result of higher labour and capital costs, but also because of a stronger krone. As a consequence labour and capital will move from the non-oil sector to the oil sector. Most economists would agree that this is a natural market process that ensures the most productive and profitable use of economic resources. As David Ricardo taught us long ago – countries should produce the goods in which the country has a comparative advantage. The unhampered market mechanism ensures this.

However, if the central bank suffers from fear-of-floating then the central bank will intervene to curb the strengthening of the krone. This has two consequences. First, the increase in profitability in the oil sector will be smaller than it would have been had the krone been allowed to strengthen. This would also mean that the increase in demand for capital and labour in the oil sector would be smaller than it would have been if the krone had been allowed to float completely freely (or had been pegged to the oil price). Second, this would mean that the “scaling down” of the non-oil sector will be smaller than otherwise would have been the case – and as a result this sector will demand too much labour and capital relative to what is economically optimal. This is exactly what the central bank would like to see. However, I think the example pretty clearly shows that such as policy is violating the law of comparative advantages. Relative prices are distorted and as a result the total economic output and welfare will be smaller than would have been the case under a freely floating currency.

It is often argued that if the oil price is very volatile and the krone (or another oil-exporting country’s currency) therefore would be more volatile and as a consequence the non-oil sector will see large swings in economic activity and it would be in the interest of the central bank to reduce this volatility and thereby stabilise the development in the non-oil sector. However, this completely misses the point with free markets. Prices should be allowed to adjust to ensure an efficient allocation of capital and labour. If you intervene in the market process allocation of resources will be less efficient.

Furthermore, the central bank cannot permanently distort relative prices. If the currency is kept artificially weak by easier monetary policy it will just inflated the entire economy – and as a result capital and labour cost will increase – as will inflation – and sooner or later the competitive advantage created by an artificially weak currency will be gradually eaten by higher prices and wages. In an economy where wages and prices are downward rigid – as surely is the case in the Norwegian economy – this will created major adjustment problems if oil prices drops sharply especially if the central bank also try to curb the weakening of the currency (as the Russian central bank did in 2008). Hence, by trying to dampen the swings in the FX rates the central bank will actually move the adjustment process from the FX markets (which is highly flexible) to the much less flexible labour and good markets. So even though the central bank might want to curb the volatility in economic activity in the non-oil sector it will actually rather increase the general level of volatility in the economy. In an economy with fully flexible prices and wages the manipulation of the FX rate would not be a problem. However, if for example wages are downward rigid because interventionist labour market policy as it is the case in Norway then a policy of curbing the volatility in the FX rate quite obviously (to me at least) leads to lower productivity and higher volatility in both nominal and rate variables.

I have used the Norwegian economy as an example. I should stress that I might as well have used for example Brazil or Russia – as the central banks in these countries to a much larger degree than Norges Bank suffers from a fear-of-floating. I could in fact also have used the ECB as the ECB indirectly suffers from a fear-of-floating as the ECB is targeting inflation.

I am not aware of any research on the consequences for productivity of fear-of-floating, but I am sure it could be an interesting area of research – I wonder if Norge Banks is aware how big the productive lose in the Norwegian economy has been due to it’s policy of curbing oil price driven swings in the krone. I am pretty sure that the Russian central bank and the Brazilian central bank have not given this much thought at all. Neither has most other Emerging Market central banks that frequently intervenes in the FX markets. 

PS do I need to say how to avoid these problems? Yes you guessed right – NGDP level targeting or by pegging the currency to the oil price. If you want to stay with in a inflation targeting framework then central bank central bank should at least target domestic demand inflation or what I earlier inspired by David Eagle has termed Quasi-Real inflation (QRPI).

PS Today I am spending my day in London – I wrote this on the flight. I bet a certain German central banker will be high on the agenda in my meetings with clients…

%d bloggers like this: