The cost of the Sino-US FX deal: Surging money market rates (in Hong Kong)

This is from Financial Times’ FT Fast this morning:

A key lending rate between Hong Kong banks jumped to its highest level since February, potentially making it more expensive to short the renminbi.

The overnight CNH-Hong Kong Interbank Offer Rate (Hibor), a daily benchmark for offshore renminbi interbank lending, jumped to 5.446 per cent on Thursday – its highest level since February 19 – from 1.56767 per cent yesterday, write Peter Wells and Hudson Lockett.

Hong Kong banks do not rely on Hibor to anywhere near the same degree that global banks rely on Libor, the more famous US-dollar counterpart that is a crucial benchmark for loans that global lenders rely on for trillions of dollars of funding each day.

As such, the spike in CNH-Hibor has little practical impact on the banks themselves, but it has recently been viewed as more of a deterrent to speculators betting on CNH, the offshore renminbi.

On January 12, CNH-Hibor hit 66.815 per cent, the highest level since the benchmark was introduced in 2013, amid heavy speculation the People’s Bank of China, acting through state-owned banks, was soaking up liquidity to make the cost of shorting the renminbi more prohibitive as the currency came under pressure from speculators.

Ahead of this month’s G20 summit Commerzbank analyst Hao Zhou was among those predicting the PBoC would hold the line at Rmb6.7 against the dollar for a number of reasons, including a desire to facilitate special drawing rights (SDR) operations set to begin on October 1. However, he noted that “of course, politics tops the agenda again, especially as China is keen to show its ability to manage the whole economy and financial markets although the country still faces strong capital outflows.”

The central bank today weakened the currency’s midpoint fix for the first time since the end of G20, a move in line with analyst predictions that efforts to shore up the renminbi’s value would dissipate when the summit was over.

A spike in Hibor would track with a scenario in which the central bank either intervened itself or had mainland banks sop up liquidity on its behalf. It also has other options – as Commerzbank’s Zhou noted late last month: “We also expect that China’s central bank will allow the local banks to trade CNH in September, in order to narrow the CNY-CNH spread.”

This happens after China and the US over the weekend agreed to “refrain from competitive devaluations and not target exchange rates for competitive purposes”.

As my loyal readers know I am very critical about this deal (see my post on that topic here) as I believe that it is an attempt to quasi fix global exchange rates to avoid ‘currency war’ effectively limits the possibility for monetary easing – both in the US and China.

Ending China’s crawling devaluation will be bad news 

Since the Federal Reserve in December hiked the fed funds target rate the People Bank of China effective has tried to decouple Chinese monetary policy from US monetary policy by allowing a crawling devaluation of the Renminbi.

rmb-crawling-devaluation

This in my view has played a positive role in offsetting the negative impact of the Fed’s foolish attempt to tighten US monetary conditions.

However, the Sino-US ‘currency peace’ deal limits the PBoC’s possibility of continuing this policy and this is why HIBOR rates are now surging. This obviously is bad news for the Chinese economy – in fact it is bad news for the global economy and markets.

China does not need tighter monetary conditions. Chinese monetary conditions in my view is still quasi-deflationary and if the PBoC abandons its unannounced crawling devaluation policy it will cause a excessive tightening of Chinese monetary conditions, which could push back the Chinese economy towards recession.

It is too bad that policy makers from the ‘Global Monetary Superpowers’ believe that limiting currency flexibility is the right policy. Instead they should embrace floating exchange rates and instead focus on avoiding the biggest risk to the global economy – deflation.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Myth of Currency War’

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

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

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

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

Fiscal devaluation – a terrible idea that will never work

Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation

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

The luck of the ‘Scandies’

 

The verdict from G20 Money Base growth: Money is TIGHT

We hear it all the time – central banks are printing money like no time before and it is not working and now there is nothing more central banks around the world can do to fight deflation.

However, this is all a myth and this is what I will demonstrate in this post by looking at global money base growth.

We start by looking at the level of total money base of the G20 countries measured in US dollars.

G20 money base gap.jpg

The graph is clear – since early 2014 the G20 money base (denominated in US dollars) has flatlined.

Contrary to the popular perception there is not massive global money creation. Rather it is hardly surprising that we continue to see strong deflationary tendencies many places in the world as there essentially is no global money creation.

Now lets look at the same data now just in yearly growth rates instead of in levels.

G20 money base growth.jpg

Again the same picture emerges – G20 money base growth has come to a grinding halt particularly from early 2014, but in fact since early 2012 G20 money base growth has been below the pre-crisis growth rate of 15½% y/y.

Hence, it is very clear that judging from the G20 money base global monetary conditions have been tightening at least since early 2014. This of course coincide with when Janet Yellen became Federal Reserve Chair in February 2014 and US quantitative easing was coming to an end.

Ending quantitative easing in the US might or might not have been the right thing for the US economy, but it is clear that the impact on global money base growth has been significantly negative.

Tremendously stable global money base-velocity

Obviously one can question whether the money base is a good measure of monetary conditions. For this to be the case we would need to have a fairly stable development in global money demand and hence in global money base-velocity.

G20 base velocity

The graph above shows that G20 money base velocity in fact has followed tremendously stable development for the past 15 years.

Hence, over the past 15 years G20 money base-velocity has closely followed a downward trend declining on average 2,75% every quarter.

That said, since 2000 we of course have seen one major negative shock to G20 money base velocity in relationship to the onset of the Great Recession in October 2008 as the graph below  shows.

G20 velocity quarterly growth

However, from 2009 G20 money base-velocity developments more or less has been in line with the pre-crisis trend and as long as this continues to be the case I think it is fair to consider G20 money base growth as a reliable indicator of global monetary conditions. Not the only indicator, but certainly a very important indicator.

Money base slowdown at the core of the EM crisis and the drop in commodity prices

Having the sharp slowdown in G20 money base growth in mind it is hard to ignore that this more or less have coincided with a sharp drop in global commodity prices and considerable turmoil in Emerging Markets around the world.

Just have a look at the graph below.

CRB and G20 money base growth

There is far from a perfect correlation between commodity prices – he measured by Reuters CRB index – and G20 money base growth, but it is nonetheless notable that as G20 money base starts to slow down in early 2014 commodity prices fall of a cliff.

For the same reason I also think that it is wrong to attribute the drop in global commodity prices only to supply factors – such as Saudi Arabia’s oil policy or the return of Iran to the global oil markets. In fact I think the tightening of global monetary condition is the main cause of the drop in commodity prices since early 2014.

In the last couple of months we have seen a bit of a rebound in global commodity prices. This to some extent reflects supply side factors – such as increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran – but again it is hard to ignore the fact that the outlook for G20 money base growth has changed in a slightly more positive direction as the Fed has softens its hawkish stance a bit.

That said, we haven’t seen a pick up in actual money base growth yet and unless we see that it is hard to see a more sustained recovery in commodity prices.

The question, however, remains whether we will actually see a pick-up in G20 money base growth going forward.

Three ways to higher G20 money base growth

Essentially there are three ways to higher G20 money base growth.

First, the Federal Reserve could re-start quantitative easing. That obviously would increase global money base growth, but right now it seems rather unlikely that the Fed is about to increase money base growth and the Fed still is overly hawkish.

Second, a sharp drop in the US dollar would by definition increase G20 money base growth denominated in US dollars, but again unless the Fed softens its rhetoric further we are unlikely to see any major correction in the dollar in the near-term.

Third, the other major central banks of the world could move into action and here I believe that it will be of particularly importance what the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) does with monetary policy. Here it is particularly notable that the PBoC has started to de-link the renminbi from the dollar and as such is gaining a larger degree of monetary sovereignty.

These three ways to increase money base growth also illustrate why the ‘dollar bloc’ is falling apart and more and more countries are likely to give up their close link to the dollar.

China has already started the process and a number of commodity exporters such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Angola have devalued their currencies substantially again the US dollar and other ‘dollar peggers’ are very likely to give up their close link to the dollar in the coming year – particularly if we do not see an increase in G20 money base growth either as a result of high US money base growth and/or a sharp drop in the value of the dollar.

Conclusion: Global monetary conditions have tightened considerably

So the conclusion is that global monetary conditions have been tightening significantly over the past two years and it is therefore hardly surprising that we have seen turmoil in Emerging Markets, collapsing commodity prices and continued global deflationary pressures.

We can see this by observing global financial markets, but as I have shown in this blog post the signal from G20 money base growth is also very clear and unless the major central banks of the world do not move into action to spur money base growth the global economy will continue be in a state of deflation.

It is about time for central banks around the world to acknowledge that they are far from helpless and take responsibility for ensuring nominal stability. Today central banks around the world unfortunately are failing to do so.

And no, negative interest rates will not do this – only more money creation will curb global deflationary pressures.

HT Jens Pedersen.


Update: the good thing about writing a blog is that you don’t have to worry about formalities, but on this one I would have put a source on the data. The source is IMF, local central banks, MacroBond and own calculations.

 

‘Googlenomics’ predicts sharp rise in US unemployment

It is no secret that I am quite fascinated by the the idea that social media data might be very useful as early/leading indicators of macroeconomic variables. Said in another way I think that social media activity can be seen as a form of prediction markets.

So recently I have been tracking what Google Trends is saying about the development in searches for different terms that might give an indication about whether we are heading for a recession in the US economy.

Lets start with the world ‘recession’.

Recession Google Trend

The picture is not dramatic and the Google searches for ‘Recession’ clearly is much lower than at the onset of the Great Recession in 2007-8. That said, there has recently been a relatively clear pick up in the ‘recession indicator’ that could indicate that ‘Google searchers’ are increasingly beginning to worry about the US economy entering a recession.

How about the labour market? This is Google searches for ‘Unemployment’.

Unemployment Google trends

This is much more alarming – there has been a very steep rise in Google searches for ‘Unemployment’. In fact the rise is more steep than it was in 2008. This certainly is an indication of a very sharp deterioration of US labour market conditions right now.

The question then is whether Google searches have any prediction power and here the evidence is quite clear that, that is indeed the case. At least that is the conclusion in a recent paper – The Predictive Power of Google Searches in Forecasting Unemployment – by Francesco D’Amuri and Juri Marcucci.

The evidence is in – the Fed should re-start QE rather than hike rates

Janet Yellen’s Federal Reserve have been extremely eager to say that inflation would soon rise due to the continued decline in unemployment and has essentially ignored all monetary and market indicators, which for a long time have indicated that monetary conditions should not be tightened as fast as the Fed has signaled.

That in my view is the main reason why US economic activity now is slowing significantly in and paradoxically that will now very likely push up unemployment. In fact if we trust the signals from Google searches then we are in for a significant deterioration in labour market conditions in the US very soon.

So while the Yellen-Fed seems to ignore monetary indicators at least the fact that unemployment might soon shoot up again should tell the Fed that it is time to dramatically change course.

In fact it now seems more likely that we will have a new round of Quantitative Easing in the next couple of quarters rather than more rate hikes. Or at least that is what the Fed should do to avoid another recession.

PS have a look at a couple of other Google searches as well: ‘jobs’, ‘loan+default’, ‘economic crisis’, ‘bear market’

PPS I seriously thought that Janet Yellen was well-aware of the dangers of repeating the mistakes of 1937. Apparently I was wrong.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

Three simple changes to the Fed’s policy framework

Frankly speaking I don’t feel like commenting much on the FOMC’s decision today to keep the Fed fund target unchanged – it was as expected, but sadly it is very clear that the Fed has not given up the 1970s style focus on the Phillips curve and on the US labour market rather than focusing on monetary and market indicators. That is just plain depressing.

Anyway, I would rather focus on the policy framework rather than on today’s decision because at the core of why the Fed consistently seems to fail on monetary policy is the weaknesses in the monetary policy framework.

I here will suggest three simple changes in the Fed’s policy framework, which I believe would dramatically improve the quality of US monetary policy.

  1. Introduce a 4% Nominal GDP level target. The focus should be on the expected NGDP level in 18-24 month. A 4% NGDP target would over the medium term also ensure price stability and  “maximum employment”. No other targets are needed.
  2. The Fed should give up doing forecasting on its own. Instead three sources for NGDP expectations should be used: 1) The Fed set-up a prediction market for NGDP in 12 and 24 months. 2) Survey of professional forecasters’ NGDP expectations. 3) The Fed should set-up financial market based models for NGDP expectations.
  3. Give up interest rate targeting (the horrible “dot” forceasts from the FOMC members) and instead use the money base as the monetary policy framework. At each FOMC meeting the FOMC should announce the permanent yearly growth rate of the money base. The money base growth rate should be set to hit the Fed’s 4% NGDP level target. Interest rates should be completely market determined. The Fed should commit itself to only referring to the expected level for NGDP in 18-24 months compared to the targeted level when announcing the money base growth rate. Nothing else should be important for monetary policy.

This would have a number of positive consequences.

First, the policy would be completely rule based contrary to today’s discretion policy.

Second, the policy would be completely transparent and in reality the market would be doing most of the lifting in terms of implementing the NGDP target.

Third, there would never be a Zero-Lower-Bound problem. With money base control monetary policy can always be eased also if interest rates are at the ZLB.

Forth, all the silly talk about bubbles, moral hazard and irrational investors in the stock markets would come to an end. Please stop all the macro prudential nonsense right now. The Fed will never ever be able to spot bubbles and should not try to do it.

Fifth,the Fed would stop reacting to supply shocks (positive and negative) and finally six the FOMC could essentially be replaced by a computer as long ago suggested by Milton Friedman.

Will this ever happen? No, there is of course no chance that this will ever happen because that would mean that the FOMC members would have to give up the believe in their own super human abilities and the FOMC would have to give up its discretionary powers. So I guess we might as well prepare ourself for a US recession later this year. It seems incredible, but right now it seems like Janet Yellen’s Fed has repeated the Mistakes of ’37.

PS What I here have suggested is essentially a forward-looking McCallum rule.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

 

Talking to Ambrose about the Fed

I have been talking to The Telegraph’s  about the Fed’s decision to hike interest rates (see here):

“All it will take is one shock,” said Lars Christensen, from Markets and Money Advisory. “It is really weird that they are raising rates at all. Capacity utilization in industry has been falling for five months.”

Mr Christensen said the rate rise in itself is relatively harmless. The real tightening kicked off two years ago when the Fed began to slow its $85bn of bond purchases each month. This squeezed liquidity through the classic quantity of money effect.

Fed tapering slowly turned off the spigot for a global financial system running on a “dollar standard”, with an estimated $9 trillion of foreign debt in US currency. China imported US tightening through its dollar-peg, compounding the slowdown already under way.

It was the delayed effect of this crunch that has caused the “broad” dollar index to rocket by 19pc since July 2014, the steepest dollar rise in modern times. It is a key cause of the bloodbath for commodities and emerging markets.

Mr Christensen said the saving grace this time is that Fed has given clear assurances – like the Bank of England – that it will roll over its $4.5 trillion balance sheet for a long time to come, rather than winding back quantitative easing and risking monetary contraction.

This pledge more than offsets the rate rise itself, which was priced into the market long ago. Chairman Janet Yellen softened the blow further with dovish guidance, repeating the word “gradual” a dozen times.

So no I don’t think the hike is a disaster, but I don’t understand the Fed’s rational for doing this – nominal spending growth is slightly soft, inflation is way below the target, money supply and money base growth is moderate, the dollar is strong and getting stronger and inflation expectations are low and have been coming down.

So if anything across the board monetary indicators are pointing towards the need for easing of monetary conditions – at least if you want to maintain some credibility about the 2% inflation target and or keep nominal GDP growth on the post-2009 4% path.

But I guess this is because Janet Yellen fundamentally has the same model in her head as Arthur Burns had in the 1970s – its is all about a old-style Phillips Curve and I predict that Yellen is making a policy mistake in the same way Burns did in the 1970s – just in the opposite direction and (much) less extreme.

PS some Fed officials are obviously also concerned with the risk of asset market bubbles, but the Fed shouldn’t concern itself with such things (and by the way I don’t think there is any bubbles other than in the market for people concerning themselves with bubbles.)

 

Yellen is transforming the US economy into her favourite textbook model

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellen is a keynesian – unfortunately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only a 50% keynesian economy

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

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

What Yellen should do 

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

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

Introduce a clear target for monetary policy

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

Make monetary policy forward-looking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘dollar bloc’ was never an optimal currency area and now it is falling apart

Global stock markets are in a 2008ish kind of crash today and I really don’t have much time to write this, but I just want to share my take on it.

To me this is fundamentally about the in-optimal currency union between the US and China. From 1995 until 2005 the Chinese renminbi was more or less completely pegged to the US dollar and then from 2005 until recently the People’s Bank of China implemented a gradual managed appreciation of the RMB against the dollar.

This was going well as long as supply side factors – the opening of the Chinese economy and the catching up process – helped Chinese growth.

Hence, China went through one long continues positive supply shock that lasted from the mid-1990s and until 2006 when Chinese trend growth started to slow. With a pegged exchange rate a positive supply causes a real appreciation of the currency. However, as RMB has been (quasi)pegged to the dollar this appreciation had to happen through domestic monetary easing and higher inflation and higher nominal GDP growth. This process was accelerated when China joined WTO in 2001.

As a consequence of the dollar peg and the long, gradual positive supply shock Chinese nominal GDP growth accelerated dramatically from 2000 until 2008.

However, underlying something was happening – Chinese trend growth was slowing due to negative supply side headwinds primarily less catch-up potential and the beginning impact of negative labour force growth and the financial markets have long ago realized that Chinese potential growth is going to slow rather dramatically in the coming decades.

As a consequence the potential for real appreciation of the renminbi is much smaller. In fact there might be good arguments for real depreciation as Chinese growth is fast falling below trend growth, while trend itself is slowing.

With an quasi-pegged exchange rate like the renminbi real depreciation will have to happen through lower inflation – hence through monetary tightening. And this I believe is part of what we have been seeing in the last 2-3 years.

The US and China is not an optimal currency area and therefore the renminbi should of course not be pegged to the dollar. That was a problem when monetary conditions became excessively easy in China ahead of 2008 (and that is a big part of the commodity boom in that period), but it is an even bigger problem now when China is facing structural headwinds.

Yellen was the trigger

Hence, the underlying cause of the sell-off we have seen recently in the Chinese and global stock markets really is a result of the fact that the US and China is not an optimal currency area and as Chinese trend growth is slowing monetary conditions is automatically tightened in China due to the quasi-peg against the dollar.

This of course is being made a lot worse by the fact that the Fed for some time has become increasingly hawkish, which as caused an strong appreciation of the dollar – and due to the quasi-peg also of the renminbi. And worse still – in July Fed chair Janet Yellen signaled that the Fed would likely hike the Fed funds rate in September. This to me was the trigger of the latest round of turmoil, but the origin of the problem is a structural slowdown in China and the fact China is not an optimal currency area.

China should de-peg and Yellen should postpone rate hikes

Obviously the Chinese authorities would love the Fed to postpone rate hikes or even ease monetary policy. This would clearly ease the pressures on the Chinese economy and markets, but it is also clear that the Fed of course should not conduct monetary policy for China.

So in the same way that it is a problem the Germany and Greece are in a monetary union together it is a problem that China and the US are in a quasi-currency union. Therefore, the Chinese should of course give up the dollar peg and let the renminbi float freely and my guess is that will be the outcome in the end. The only question is whether the Chinese authorities will blow up something on the way or not.

Finally, it is now also very clear that this is a global negative demand shock and this is having negative ramifications for US demand growth – this is clearly visible in today’s stock market crash, massively lower inflation expectations and the collapse of commodity prices. The Fed should ease rather than tighten monetary policy and the same goes for the ECB by the way. If the ECB and Fed fail to realize this then the risk of a 2008 style event increases dramatically.

We should remember today as the day where the ‘dollar bloc’ fell apart.

PS I have earlier argued that China might NEVER become biggest economy in the world. Recent events are a pretty good indication that that view is correct and I was equally right that you shouldn’t bet on a real appreciation of the renminbi.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

Yellen should re-read Friedman’s “The Role of Monetary Policy” and lay the Phillips curve to rest

It is the same thing every month – anybody seriously interested in financial markets and the global economy are sitting and waiting for the US labour market report to come out even though the numbers are notoriously unstable and unreliable.

Why is that? The simple answer is that it is not because the numbers are important on their own, but because the Federal Reserve seems to think the labor market report is very important.

And that particularly goes for Fed-chair Janet Yellen who doesn’t seem to miss any opportunity to talk about labour market conditions.

The problematic re-emergence of the Phillips curve as a policy indicator

To Janet Yellen changes in inflation seems to be determined by the amount of slack in the US labour market and if labour market conditions tighten then inflation will rise. This of course is essentially an old-school Phillips curve relationship and a relationship where causality runs from labour market conditions to wage growth and on to inflation.

This means that for the Yellen-fed labour market indicators essentially are as important as they were for former Fed chairman Arthur Burns in the 1970s and that could turn into a real problem for US monetary policy going forward.

Yellen should re-read Friedman’s “The Role of Monetary Policy”

To understand this we need to go back to Milton Friedman’s now famous presidential address delivered at the Eightieth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association – “The Role of Monetary Policy” – in 1967 in, which he explained what monetary policy can and cannot do.

Among other things Friedman said:

What if the monetary authority chose the “natural” rate – either of interest or unemployment – as its target? One problem is that it cannot know what the “natural” rate is. Unfortunately, we have as yet devised no method to estimate accurately and readily the natural rate of either interest or unemployment. And the natural rate will itself change from time to time. But the basic problem is that even if the monetary authority knew the natural rate, and attempted to peg the market rate at that level, it would not be led to determinate policy. The “market” rate will vary from the natural rate for all sorts of reasons other than monetary policy. If the monetary authority responds to these variations, it will set in train longer term effects that will make any monetary growth path it follows ultimately consistent with the policy rule. The actual course of monetary growth will be analogous to a random walk, buffeted this way and that by the forces that produce temporary departures of the market rate from the natural rate.

To state this conclusion differently, there is always a temporary trade-off between inflation and unemployment: there is no permanent trade-off. The temporary trade-off comes not from inflation per se, but from unanticipated inflation which generally means, from a rising rate of inflation. The widespread belief that there is a permanent trade-off is a sophisticated version of the confusion between “high” and “rising” that we all recognize in simpler forms. A rising rate of inflation may reduce unemployment, a high rate will not.

…To state the general conclusion still differently, the monetary authority controls nominal quantities – directly, the quantity of its own liabilities. In principle, it can use this control to peg a nominal quantity – an exchange rate, the price level, the nominal level of income, the quantity of money by one or another definition – or to peg the rate of change in a nominal quantity – the rate of inflation or deflation, the rate of growth or decline in nominal national income, the rate of growth of the quantity of money.

It cannot use its controls over nominal quantities to peg a real quantity – the real rate of interest, the rate of unemployment, the level of real national income, the real quantity of money, the rate of growth of real income, or the rate of growth of the real quantity of money.

For many years – at least going back to the early 1990s – this was the clear consensus among mainstream macroeconomists. It is of course a variation of Friedman’s dictum that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomena.”

Central banks temporary can impact real variables such as unemployment or real GDP, but it cannot permanently impact these variables. Similarly there might be a short-term correlation between real variables and nominal variables such as a correlation between nominal wage growth (or inflation) and unemployment (or the output gap).

However, inflation or the growth of nominal income is not determined by real factors in the longer-term (and maybe not even in the short-term), but rather than by monetary factors – the balance between demand and supply of money.

The Yellen-fed seems to be questioning Friedman’s fundamental insight. Instead the Yellen-Fed seems to think of inflation/deflation as a result of the amount of “slack” in the economy and the Yellen-fed is therefore preoccupied with measuring this “slack” and this is what now seems to be leading Yellen & Co. to conclude it is time to tighten US monetary conditions.

This is of course the Phillips curve interpretation of the US economy – there has been steady job growth and unemployment is low so inflation most be set to rise no matter what nominal variables are indicating and not matter what market expectations are. Therefore, Yellen (likely) has concluded that a rate hike soon is warranted in the US.

This certainly is unfortunately. Instead of focusing on the labour market Janet Yellen should instead pay a lot more attention to the development in nominal variables and to the expectations about these variables.

What are nominal variable telling us?

Friedman mentions a number of variables that the monetary authorities directly or indirectly can control – among others the price level, the level of nominal income and the money supply. We could add to that nominal wages.

So what are these variables then telling us about the US economy and the state of monetary policy? Lets take them one-by-one.

We start with the price level – based on core PCE deflator.

PCE core

The graph shows that it looks as if the Federal Reserve has had a price level target since the (“official”) end of the 2008-9 recession in the summer of 2009. In fact at no time since 2009 has the actual price level (PCE core deflator) diverged more than 0.5% from the trend. Interestingly, however, the trend growth rate of the price level has been nearly exactly 1.5% – pretty much in line with medium-term market expectations for inflation, but below the Fed’s official 2% inflation target.

However, if we define the Fed’s actual target as the trend in the price level over the past 5-6 years then there is no indication that monetary policy should be tightened. In fact the actual price level has this year fallen slightly below the 1.5%-“target path” indicating if anything that monetary conditions is slightly too tight (but nearly perfect). Obviously if we want to hit a new 2% path then someeasing of monetary conditions is warranted.

So how about the favorite Market Monetarist-indicator – Nominal GDP?

NGDP gap

Again the picture is the same – the Fed has actually delivered a remarkable level of nominal stability since the summer of 2009. Hence, nominal GDP has grown nicely along at a trend since Q3 2009 and the actual NGDP level has remains remarkably close to the trend path for NGDP – as if the Fed was actually targeting the NGDP level along a (close to) 4% path.

And as with the price level – the present NGDP level is slightly below the trend over the past 5-6 years indicating a slightly too tight monetary stance. Furthermore, it should be noted that prediction markets such as Hypermind presently are predicting around 3.5% NGDP growth in 2015 – below the 4% de facto target. So again if anything US monetary policy is – judging from NGDP and NGDP expectations – just a tiny bit too tight.

And what about Milton Friedman’s favourite nominal indicator – the broad money supply? Here we look at M2.

M2 gap US

Once again we have seen a remarkable amount of nominal stability judging from the development in US M2 – particularly since 2011 with only tiny deviations in the level of M2 from the post-2009 trend. Milton Friedman undoubtedly would have praised the Fed for this. Hence, it looks as if the Fed actually have had a 7% growth path target for M2.

But again, recently – as is the case with the price level and NGDP – the actual money supply (M2) as dropped moderately below the the post-2009 trend indicating that monetary conditions are slightly too tight rather than too easy.

Then what about nominal wages? We here look at average hourly earnings for all all employees (total private).

wage gap

Surprise, surprise – again incredible nominal stability in the sense that average hourly earnings have grown very close to a near-perfect 2% trend in the past 5-6 years. However, unlike the other nominal measures recently the “wage gap” – the difference between actual nominal wages and the trend – has turned slightly positive indicating that monetary conditions is a bit too easy to achieve 2% trend growth in US nominal wages.

But again we are very, very close to the post-2009 trend. We could of course also notice that a 2% nominal wage growth target is unlikely to be comparable to a 2% inflation target if we have positive productivity growth in the US economy.

Conclusion: Preoccupation with the Phillips curve could course the Fed to hike too early

…Nominal variables tell the Fed to postpone a hike until 2016

The message from Milton Friedman is clear – we should not judge monetary conditions on real variables such as labour market conditions. Instead we should focus on nominal variables.

If we look at nominal variables – the price level, NGDP, the money supply and nominal wages – the conclusion is rather clear. The Fed has actually since 2009 delivered a remarkable level of nominal stability in terms of keeping nominal variables very close to the post-2009 trend.

If we want to think about the Bernanke-Fed the Fed had one of the following targets: 1.5% core PCE level targeting, 4% NGDP level targeting, 7% M2-level targeting or 2% wage level targeting at least after the summer of 2009.

However, the Yellen-Fed seems to be focusing on real variables – and particularly labour market variables – instead. This is apparently leading Janet Yellen to conclude that monetary conditions should be tightened.

However, nominal variables are telling a different story – it seems like monetary conditions have become slightly too tight within the past 6-12 months and therefore the Fed needs to communicate that it will not hike interest rates in September if it wants to keep nominal variables on their post-2009 path.

Obviously the Fed cannot necessarily hit more than one nominal variable at the time so the fact that it has kept at least four nominal variables on track in the past 5-6 years is quite remarkable. However, the Fed needs to chose one nominal target and particularly needs to give up the foolish focus on labour market conditions and instead fully commit to a nominal target. My preferred target would certainly be a 4% (or 5%) Nominal GDP level target.

And Chair Yellen, please lay the Phillips curve to rest if you want to avoid sending the US economy into recession in 2016!

PS My thinking on these issues has strongly be influence by my good friend Mike Darda.

PPS think of the present time as one where Milton Friedman would be more dovish than Arthur Burns.

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

The hawks should start advocating NGDP targeting to avoid embarrassment

Over the past six years the “hawks” among UK and US central bankers have been proven wrong. They have continued to argue that a spike in inflation was just around the corner because monetary policy was “high accommodative”. Obviously Market Monetarists have continued to argue that monetary policy has not been easy, but rather to tight in the US and the UK – at least until 2012-13.

The continued very low inflation continues to be an embarrassment for the hawks and looking into 2015-16 there are no indication that inflation is about to pick-up either in the US or in the UK.

That said, there might actually be good reasons for turning more hawkish right now – nominal GDP growth continues to pick up in both the UK and the US (I will ignore the euro zone in this blog post…)

The sharp drop in oil prices in recent months is likely to further push down headline inflation in the coming months. Central bankers should obviously completely ignore any drop in inflation caused by a positive supply shock, but with most hawks completely obsessed with inflation targeting a hawkish stance will become harder and harder to justify from an inflation targeting perspective exactly at the time when it actually might become more justified than at any time before in the past six years.

I would personally not be surprised if we get close to deflation in both the UK and the US in 2015 and maybe also in 2016 if we don’t get a rebound in oil prices, but I would also think that there is a pretty good chance that we could get 4-5% or maybe even higher nominal GDP growth in both the UK and US in 2015-16. And that would be a strong argument for a tighter monetary stance.

Hence, if strict inflation targeters would follow their own logic then they would be advocating monetary easing in 2015-16 in both Britain and the US, while those of us who are more focused on NGDP growth will likely see an increasing need for monetary tightening in 2015-16.

As a consequence if you are an old hawk who “feels” that there is a need for monetary tightening then you better stop looking at present inflation and instead start to focusing on expected NGDP growth.

But of course the idea that you are hawkish or dovish is in itself an idiotic idea. You should never be hawkish or dovish as that in itself means that you are likely advocating some sort of discretionary monetary policy. What should concern you should be the rules of the game – the monetary policy regime.

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