Reflections on the Fed hike

Have a look at my comments on yesterday’s Fed hike.

 

And see our “country page” on the Fed, which will also feature in our soon-to-be-published Global Monetary Conditions Monitor. (In PDF here)

Skærmbillede 2017-03-15 kl. 07.20.51

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The Trump-Yellen policy mix is the perfect excuse for Trump’s protectionism

It is hard to find any good economic arguments for protectionism. Economists have known this at least since Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776. That, however, has not stopped president-elect Donald Trump putting forward his protectionist agenda.

At the core of Trump’s protectionist thinking is the idea that trade is essentially a zero sum game. Contrary to conventional economic thinking, which sees trade as mutual beneficial Trump talks about trade in terms of winners and losers. This means that Trump essentially has a Mercantilist ideology, where the wealth of a nation can be measured on how much the country exports relative to its imports.

Therefore, we should expect the Trump administration to pay particularly attention to the US trade deficit and if the trade deficit grows Trump is likely to blame countries like Mexico and China for that.

The Yellen-Trump policy mix will cause the trade deficit to balloon

The paradox is that Trump’s own policies – particularly the announced major tax cuts and large government infrastructure investments – combined with the Federal Reserve’s likely response to the fiscal expansion (higher interest rates) in itself is likely to cause the US trade deficit to balloon.

Hence, a fiscal expansion will cause domestic demand to pick up, which in turn will increase imports. Furthermore, we have already seen the dollar rally on the back of the election Donald Trump as markets are pricing in more aggressive interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve to curb the “Trumpflationary” pressures.

The strengthening of the dollar will further erode US competitiveness and further add to the worsening the US trade balance.

Add to that, that the strengthen of the dollar and the fears of US protectionist policies already have caused most Emerging Markets currencies – including the Chinese renminbi and the Mexican peso – to weaken against the US dollar.

The perfect excuse

Donald Trump has already said he wants the US Treasury Department to brand China a currency manipulator because he believes that China is keeping the renminbi artificial weak against the dollar to gain an “unfair” trade advantage against the US.

And soon he will have the “evidence” – the US trade deficit is ballooning, Chinese exports to the US are picking up steam and the renminbi continues to weaken. However, any economist would of course know that, that is not a result of China’s currency policies, but rather a direct consequence of Trumponomics more specifically the planed fiscal expansion, but Trump is unlikely to listen to that.

There is a clear echo from the 1980s here. Reagan’s tax cuts and the increase in military spending also caused a ‘double deficit’ – a larger budget deficit and a ballooning trade deficit and even though Reagan was certainly not a protectionist in the same way as Trump is he nonetheless bowed to domestic political pressures and to the pressures American exporters and during his time in offices and numerous import quotas and tariffs were implemented mainly to curb US imports from Japan. Unfortunately, it looks like Trump is very eager to copies these failed policies.

Finally, it should be noted that in 1985 we got the so-called Plaza Accord, which essentially forced the Japanese to allow the yen to strengthen dramatically (and the dollar to weaken). The Plaza Accord undoubtedly was a contributing factor to Japan’s deflationary crisis, which essentially have lasted to this day. One can only fear that a new Plaza Accord, which will strengthen the renminbi and cause the Chinese economy to fall into crisis is Trump’s wet dream.

 

“Make America Keynesian Again”

Today I was asked to do an interview with a Danish radio station about Donald Trump and about whether one could say anything positive about him or rather about his economic agenda. I declined to do the interview. I frankly speaking has nothing positive to say about Trump.

To me Donald Trump is an absolutely vile person and and his views on immigration and trade are completely the opposite of mine. However, I have also in the run up to the election in presentations and comments stressed that the presidential election from an overall financial market perspective would not be a big deal and judging from the market reaction today this indeed seems to be the case.

Reading the markets

But what exactly are the markets telling us today about the economic consequences of a Trump presidency combined with the fact that GOP now has the majority in both the House and the Senate?

First, of all we should concluded that the markets are fairly relaxed about the outcome of the election. This to me is an indication that Trump really will never be able (or seriously want to) implement many of the bizarre “promises” on trade and immigration he made during the election campaign.

Second the markets certainly do not expect the outcome of the election to cause a US recession or a global economic crisis. After all US stock markets are in fact trading in positive territory today. We get the same message from the currency markets where the dollar is little changed over the past 24 hours.

The Republican Keynesians

However, there is one market where we have seen a significant reaction to the outcome of the election and that is in the bond market. Just take a look at the graphs below.

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The first graph is the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds and the second graph is 2-year yields.

We see that the 10-yield has increased around 10bp overnight. This certainly is a significant reaction, but it is equally notable that 2-yields in fact is slightly down.

What this is telling me is that more than anything else the markets expect Trump to be an old-school Keynesian. We know that Trump has already promised to increase Federal spending on infrastructure and he has of course also promised major tax cuts. With the Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate he should be able to deliver on some of these promises.

In fact there would be nothing unusual about having a Republican president who is also a “keynesian” (yes, I know he has no clue about what that is). In fact historically public spending has grown faster under Republican administrations than under Democrat administrations. Just take a look at the graphs below.

Since the Second World War public spending has grown by around a quarter of a percent per year faster when the president has been Republican than when there has been a Democrat president.

The picture is even more clear when we look at Federal government investments:

…and on the budget deficit:

So based on history we can certainly say that Republican presidents tend to be less fiscally conservative than Democrat presidents and judging from the action in the bond markets today there is little reason to believe that Trump should be any different from former Republican presidents.

And what will Trump spend money on? There is little doubt what the markets think – infrastructure! This is from Trump’s victory speech:

We are going to fix our inner cities, and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

And see what effect that kind of speech had on copper prices today:

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Keynesian president + Keynesian Fed chair = No monetary offset

So it seems like the markets expect Trump to push for an expansionary fiscal policy agenda and this is visible in the bond market. However, it is also notable that it is only long-term bond yields, which have increased while 2-year yields haven’t increased overnight.

That tells me that the markets do not expect the Federal Reserve to (fully) offset the impact on nominal demand from a more expansionary fiscal policy.

This effectively means that an easier fiscal policy stance will cause monetary conditions to be eased. The reason is that if fiscal policy is eased then that will push up the equilibrium interest rate level. If the Fed does not hike interest rates to reflect this then it will automatically ease monetary policy by keeping the fed funds rate below the equilibrium interest rate.

This of course is the standard result in a New Keynesian model when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound (see for example here).

Does this mean that the so-called Sumner Critique does not apply? According to the Sumner Critique an easing of fiscal policy will not have (net) impact on aggregate demand if the central bank has an inflation target (or a nominal GDP) as the central bank will act to offset any impact on aggregate demand from a easier fiscal policy.

However, the Sumner Critique does not necessarily apply if the central bank’s inflation target is not credible and/or central bank is not willing to “enforce” it. And this seems relevant to the present situation. Hence, US core inflation continue to be below the Fed’s inflation target so one can certainly argue that there is room for an increase in aggregate demand without the Federal Reserve having to tighten monetary conditions.

Obviously the Fed could have done this on it own by for example not signaling a rate hike in December or signaling that it would re-introduce quantitative easing if inflation once again started to trend downwards.

However, the Fed clearly has “mental” problems with this. It is clear that most key Fed policy makers are worried about the consequences of keeping interest rates “low for longer” and more QE clearly seems to be a no-go.

In other words the Fed has put itself in a situation where further monetary easing is off the table and this is of course the reason why a number of Fed officials in the last couple of months have called for old-school keynesian fiscal stimulus.

It all seems to have started in August. This is Janet Yellen at the Jackson Hole symposium on August 26:

Beyond monetary policy, fiscal policy has traditionally played an important role in dealing with severe economic downturns. A wide range of possible fiscal policy tools and approaches could enhance the cyclical stability of the economy.25 For example, steps could be taken to increase the effectiveness of the automatic stabilizers, and some economists have proposed that greater fiscal support could be usefully provided to state and local governments during recessions. As always, it would be important to ensure that any fiscal policy changes did not compromise long-run fiscal sustainability.

Finally, and most ambitiously, as a society we should explore ways to raise productivity growth. Stronger productivity growth would tend to raise the average level of interest rates and therefore would provide the Federal Reserve with greater scope to ease monetary policy in the event of a recession. But more importantly, stronger productivity growth would enhance Americans’ living standards. Though outside the narrow field of monetary policy, many possibilities in this arena are worth considering, including improving our educational system and investing more in worker training; promoting capital investment and research spending, both private and public; and looking for ways to reduce regulatory burdens while protecting important economic, financial, and social goals.

“Promoting capital investment” of course means government infrastructure spending.

Since August we have heard this again and again from Fed officials. This is Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer at the New York Economic Club on October 17:

Some combination of more encouragement for private investment, improved public infrastructure, better education, and more effective regulation is likely to promote faster growth of productivity and living standards.

Said in another way – the Fed chair and the Vice chairman are both old-school keynesians and now we will have a keynesian in the White House as well.

The consequence is that if we get massive government infrastructure investments then that will push up the equilibrium interest rate, which will allow the Fed to hike interest rates (which they for some reason so desperately want to) without really tightening monetary conditions if interest rates are increased slower than the increase in the equilibrium rate.

This means that we de facto could have a keynesian alliance between the Trump administration and the Federal Reserve, which would mean that will get both monetary and fiscal easing in 2017 and this might be what the markets now are realizing.

Just take a look at what have happened in 5-year/5-year inflation expectations over the paste 24 hours:

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Over the past 24 hours long-term inflation expectations hence have increased by nearly a quarter of a percentage point.

Hence, Donald Trump just eased US monetary conditions significantly by pushing down the difference between the Fed fund target rate and the equilibrium rate. Paul Krugman should love Donald Trump.

The Sumner Critique strikes back – A future conflict between the Fed and Trump?

Obviously this is only possible because the Federal Reserve has not been willing to ensure nominal stability by clearly defining its nominal target and has been overly eager to increase interest rates, but I do think that this keynesian stimulus implemented could increase aggregate demand in 2017 and likely push core inflation above 2%.

But if this happens then the keynesian alliance between the Federal Reserve and Trump Administration might very well get tested. Hence, if fiscal-monetary easing push unemployment below the natural rate of unemployment and inflation (and inflation expectations) start to accelerate above 2% then the Federal Reserve sooner or later will have to act and tighten monetary conditions, which could be setting the US economy up for a boom-bust scenario with the economy initially booming one-two years and then the Fed will kill the boom by hiking interest rates aggressively.

Knowing Trump’s temperament and persona that could cause a conflict between the Fed and the Trump administration.

This is of course pure speculation, but even though the Trump administration and the Fed for now seem to favouring the same policy mix – aggressive fiscal easing and gradual rate hikes (slower than the increase the in equilibrium rate) it is unlike that this kind of old-school keynesian stop-go policies will end well.

2017 – a year of inflation?

Given these factors and others I for the first time since 2008 think that we could see inflation increase more significantly in 2017 in the US. This is of course what we to some extent want, but I am concerned that we are getting higher inflation not because the Federal Reserve has moved towards a more rule-based monetary policy framework, which ensure nominal stability, but because we are moving back towards old-school keynesian stop-go demand “management”.

PS I apologize to serious (New) Keynesians about using the term “keynesian” here. I here use the term as to refer to the kind demand management policy, which so failed during the 1970s. They where inspired by Keynesian economic think and was as such keynesian. However, that is not say that present day keynesians would necessarily agree with these policies.

PPS See also my comment over at Geopolitical Intelligence Service on why the US is “Still the Greatest”– also after Trump has become president.

Update: Read my follow-up post here.

‘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.)

 

Did Bill Gross get some insight from this blog? Maybe but it might (unfortunately) be outdated

The legendary Bill Gross – formerly of PIMCO and these days Janus Capital – does not believe in a hike from the Federal Reserve this year. This is what he has to say about the issue according to a Tweet from Janus Capital:

Fed really tracks Nominal GDP, which since 2012 and last 12 mos avg 3.6%. Unless it moves higher fugetabout a hike. 4th Qtr? 3.0.

I of course to a very large extent agree. In fact I have long been making exactly the argument that the Fed since the second half of 2009 effectively has been targeting 4% NGDP growth.

The first time I argued that was in the blog post The Fed’s un-announced 4% NGDP target was introduced already in July 2009 back in September last year.

I would course love the Fed to in fact target 4% NGDP growth (level targeting), but I am afraid that the Fed has been moving away from this un-announced target in recent months since Janet Yellen took over as Fed chair.

Hence, back in August in my blog post Yellen should re-read Friedman’s “The Role of Monetary Policy” and lay the Phillips curve to rest I argued that Yellen’s had caused the Fed (or rather the FOMC) to shift focus from monetary/nominal factors and towards the labour market and more specifically towards a focus on a rather old-school style Phillips curve.

Yellen’s argument essentially is that inflation is not a monetary phenomena, but rather a result of lower unemployment, which causes wage growth to accelerate, which in turn push up inflation. This is what presently – due the the “low” level of unemployment – seems to be the driving force behind Yellen’s hawkishness.

As a consequence, I am not sure that Bill Gross is right. I would love him to be right, but I am afraid that Bernanke’s de facto 4% NGDP target might not be as rock solid anymore.

Another factor that is pushing the Fed in a more-than-good hawkish direction seems to be the influence of Fed vice-chair Stanley Fischer who has the responsibility for “macroprudential” analysis at the Fed. With a focus on macropru Fischer seems to increasingly thinking the Fed should worry about bubbles and imbalances in the US economy (I by the way see no signs of bubbles – see here what I wrote back in June on the issue.)

Any monetarist would of course be deeply skeptical about the Fed’s ability to spot bubbles and even more skeptical about its ability to do anything about them. However, Fischer does not share that view and it seems to me that he is causing the Fed to become overly worried about these issues.

I am not in the business of making forecasts on this blog, but I can only say that I am less certain about the Fed’s policy rule today than I was a year ago.

A year ago I would without hesitation have said that the Fed of course was targeting 4% NGDP growth and since NGDP expectations (according to prediction markets such as Hypermind) presently are falling somewhat short of this “target” there would be no reason to believe the Fed would hike. However, with Yellen’s Phillips curve focus and Fischer’s macroprudential focus I am beginning to worry that we might be getting “off track” from the 4% NGDP.

I certainly hope I am wrong and I would very much hope that the Fed would clearly articulate that it was targeting 4% NGDP growth for the medium-term and that it will set monetary parametres to hit this target.

HT NS.

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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 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.

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 Fed’s un-announced 4% NGDP target was introduced already in July 2009

Scott Sumner started his now famous blog TheMoneyIllusion in February 2009 it was among other things “to show that we have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the recession, attributing to the banking crisis what is actually a failure of monetary policy”.

Said in another way the Federal Reserve was to blame for the Great Recession and there was only one way out and that was monetary easing within a regime of nominal GDP level targeting (NGDP targeting).

NGDP targeting is of course today synonymous Scott Sumner. He more or less single-handedly “re-invented” NGDP targeting and created an enormous interest in the topic among academics, bloggers, financial sector economists and even policy makers.

The general perception is that NGDP targeting and Market Monetarism got the real break-through in 2013 when the Federal Reserve introduced the so-called Evans rule in September 2012 (See for example Matt Yglesias’ tribute to Scott from September 2012).

This has also until a few days ago been my take on the story of the success of Scott’s (and other’s) advocacy of NGDP targeting. However, I have now come to realize that the story might be slightly different and that the Fed effectively has been “market monetarist” (in a very broad sense) since July 2009.

The Fed might not have followed the MM game plan, but the outcome has effectively been NGDP targeting

Originally Scott basically argued that the Fed needed to bring the level nominal GDP back to the pre-crisis 5% trend path in NGDP that we had known during the so-called Great Moderation from the mid-1980s and until 2007-8.

We all know that this never happened and as time has gone by the original arguments for returning to the “old” NGDP trend-level seem much less convincing as there has been considerable supply side adjustments in the US economy.

Therefore, as time has gone by it becomes less important what is the “starting point” for doing NGDP targeting. Therefore, if we forgive the Fed for not bringing NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend-level and instead focus on the Fed’s ability to keep NGDP on “a straight line” then what would we say about the Fed’s performance in recent years?

Take a look at graph below – I have used (Nominal) Private Consumption Expenditure (PCE) as a monthly proxy for NGDP.

PCE gap

If we use July 2009 – the month the 2008-9 recession officially ended according to NBER – as our starting point (rather than the pre-crisis trend) then it becomes clear that in past five years PCE (and NGDP) has closely tracked a 4% path. In fact at no month over the past five years have PCE diverged more than 1% from the 4% path. In that sense the degree of nominal stability in the US economy has been remarkable and one could easily argue that we have had higher nominal stability in this period than during the so-called Great Moderation.

In fact I am pretty sure that if somebody had told Scott in July 2009 that from now on the Fed will follow a 4% NGDP target starting at the then level of NGDP then Scott would have applauded it. He might have said that he would have preferred a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend, but overall I think Scott would have been very happy to see a 4% NGDP target as official Fed policy.

The paradox is that Scott has not sounded very happy about the Fed’s performance for most of this period and neither have I and other Market Monetarists. The reason for this is that while the actual outcome has looked like NGDP targeting the Fed’s implementation of monetary policy has certainly not followed the Market Monetarist game plan.

Hence, the Market Monetarist message has all along been that the Fed should clearly announce its target (a NGDP level target), do aggressive quantitative easing to bring NGDP growth “back on track”, stop focusing on interest rates as a policy instrument and target expected NGDP rather than present macroeconomic variables. Actual US monetary policy has gradually moved closer to this ideal on a number of these points – particularly with the so-called Evan rule introduced in September 2012, but we are still very far away from having a Market Monetarist Fed when it comes to policy implementation.

However, in the past five years the implementation of Fed policy has been one of trial-and-error – just think of QE1, QE2 and QE3, two times “Operation Twist” and all kinds of credit policies and a continued obsession with using interest rates rates as the primary policy “instrument”.

I believe we Market Monetarists rightly have been critical about the Fed’s muddling through and lack of commitment to transparent rules. However, I also think that we today have to acknowledge that this process of trail-and-error actually has served an important purpose and that is to have sent a very clear signal to the financial markets (and others for that matter) that the Fed is committed to re-establishing some kind of nominal stability and avoiding a deflationary depression. This of course is contrary to the much less clear commitment of the ECB.

The markets have understood it all along (and much better than the Fed)

Market Monetarists like to say that the markets are better at forecasting and the collective wisdom of the markets is bigger than that of individual market participants or policy makers and something could actually indicate that the markets from an early point understood that the Fed de facto would be keeping NGDP on a straight line.

An example is the US stock market bottomed out a few months before we started to establish the new 4% trend in US NGDP and the US stock markets have essentially been on an upward trend ever since, which is fully justified if you believe the Fed will keep this de facto NGDP target in place. Then we should basically be expecting US stock prices to increase more or less in line with NGDP (disregarding changes to interest rates).

Another and even more powerful example in my view is what the currency markets have been telling us. I  (and other Market Monetarists) have long argued that market expectations play a key role in the in the implementation of monetary policy and in the monetary policy transmission mechanism.

In a situation where the central bank’s NGDP level target is credible rational investors will be able to forecast changes in the monetary policy stance based on the actual level of NGDP relative to the targeted level of NGDP. Hence, if actual NGDP is above the targeted level then it is rational to expect that the central bank will tighten the monetary policy stance to bring NGDP back on track with the target. This obviously has implications for the financial markets.

If the Fed is for example targeting a 4% NGDP path and the actual NGDP level is above this target then investors should rationally expect the dollar to strengthen until NGDP is back at the targeted level.

And guess what this is exactly how the dollar has traded since July 2009. Just take a look at the graph below.

NGDP gap dollar index 2

We are looking at the period where I argue that the Fed effectively has targeted a 4% NGDP path. Again I use PCE as a monthly proxy for NGDP and again the gap is the gap between the actual and the “targeted” NGDP (PCE) level. Look at the extremely close correlation with the dollar – here measured as a broad nominal dollar-index. Note the dollar-index is on an inverse axis.

The graph is very clear. When the NGDP gap has been negative/low (below target) as in the summer of 2010 then the dollar has weakened (as it was the case from from the summer of 2010under spring/summer of 2011. And similarly when the NGDP gap has been positive (NGDP above target) then the dollar has tended to strengthen as we essentially has seen since the second half of 2011 and until today.

I am not arguing that the dollar-level is determining the NGDP gap, but I rather argue that the dollar index has been a pretty good indicator for the future changes in monetary policy stance and therefore in NGDP.

Furthermore, I would argue that the FX markets essentially has figured out that the Fed de facto is targeting a 4% NGDP path and that currency investors have acted accordingly.

It is time for the Fed to fully recognize the 4% NGDP level target

Just because there has a very clear correlation between the dollar and the NGDP gap in the past five years it is not given that that correlation will remain in the future. A key reason for this is – and this is a key weakness in present Fed policy – that the Fed has not fully recognize that it is de facto targeting a 4%. Therefore, there is nothing that stops the Fed from diverging from the NGDP rule in the future.

Recognizing a 4% NGDP level target from the present level of NGDP in my view should be rather uncontroversial as this de facto has been the policy the Fed has been following over the past five years anyway. Furthermore, it could easily be argued as compatible  with the Fed’s (quasi) official 2% inflation target (assuming potential real GDP growth is around 2%).

In my previous post I argued that the ECB should introduce a 4% NGDP target. The Fed already done that. Now it is just up to Fed Chair Janet Yellen to announce it officially. Janet what are you waiting for?

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