Mario, stay on track and avoid the mistakes of 1937 and 2011

The global stock markets have been facing some headwinds recently, and there may be numerous reasons for this. One obvious one is the recent rebound in oil prices, which I believe is essentially driven by markets’ expectation that the Saudi-led global oil price war is now ending.

If that is indeed the case then we are seeing a (minor) negative supply shock, particularly to the European and U.S. economies. Such supply shocks often get central banks into trouble. Just think of the ECB’s massive policy blunder(s) in 2011, when it reacted to a negative shock (higher oil prices on the back of the Arab spring) by hiking interest rates twice, or the Federal Reserve’s (or rather the Roosevelt Administration’s) premature monetary tightening in 1937 – also on the back of high global commodity prices.

It may be that the ECB will not repeat the mistakes of 2011, but you can’t blame investors for thinking that there is a risk that this could happen – particularly because the ECB continues to communicate primarily in terms of headline inflation.

Therefore, even if the ECB isn’t contemplating a tightening of monetary conditions in response to a negative supply, the markets will effectively tighten monetary conditions if there is uncertainty about the ECB’s policy rule. I believe that is part of the reason for the market action we have seen lately.

The ECB needs to spell out the policy rule clearly

What the ECB therefore needs to do right now is to remind market participants that it is not reacting to a negative supply shock, and that it will ignore any rise in inflation caused by higher oil prices. There are numerous ways of doing this.

1) Spell out an NGDP target

In my view the best thing would essentially be for the ECB to make it clear that it is focusing on the development of expected nominal GDP growth. This does not necessarily have to be in conflict with the overall target of hitting 2% over the medium term. All the ECB needs to do is to say that it is targeting, for example, 4% NGDP growth on average over the coming 5 years, reflecting a 2% inflation target and 2% growth in potential real GDP in the euro zone. That would ensure that markets also ignore short-term fluctuations in headline inflation.

2) Target 2y/2y and 5y/5y inflation

Alternatively, the ECB should only communicate about inflation developments in terms of what is happening to market inflation expectations – for example 2y/2y and 5y/5y inflation expectations. Again, this would seriously reduce the risk of sending the signal that the bank is about to react to negative supply shocks.

3) Re-introduce the focus on M3

There are numerous reasons not to rely on money supply data as the only indicator of monetary conditions. However, I strongly believe that it is useful to still keep an eye on monetary aggregates such as M1 and M3. Both M1 and M3 show that monetary conditions have indeed gotten easier since the ECB introduced its QE programme. That said, the money supply data is also telling us that monetary conditions overall can hardly be described as excessively easy. Yes, money supply growth is still picking up, but M3 growth is still below the 6.5% y/y that it reached in 2000-2008, and significantly below the 10% “target” I earlier suggested would be needed to bring us back to 2% inflation over the medium term.

If the ECB re-introduces more focus on the money supply numbers – and monetary analysis in general – then it would also send a pretty clear signal that the bank is not about to change course on QE just because oil prices are rising.

4) Change the price index to the GDP deflator or core inflation

Another pretty straightforward way of trying to convince the markets that the ECB will not react to negative supply shocks is by changing the focus in terms of the inflation target. Today, the ECB is officially targeting HICP (headline) inflation. This measure is highly sensitive to swings in oil and food prices as well as changes in indirect taxes. These factors obviously are completely outside the direct control of the ECB, and it therefore makes very little sense that the ECB is focusing on this measure.

Recently, ECB chief Mario Draghi hinted that the ECB could start focusing on a core measure of inflation that excludes energy, food and taxes, and I certainly think that would be a step in the right direction if the bank does not want to introduce NGDP targeting. This would effectively mean that the ECB had a target similar to the Fed’s core PCE inflation measure. It would not be perfect, but certainly a lot better than the present headline inflation measure.

An alternative to a core inflation measure, which I believe is even better, would be to focus on the GDP deflator. The good thing about the GDP deflator (other than being the P in MV=PY) is that it measures the price of what is produced in the euro zone, and hence excludes imported inflation and indirect taxes.

Conclusion: It is still all about credibility – so more needs to be done

One can always discuss what is in fact going on in the markets at the moment – and I will deliberately avoid trying to explain why German government bond yields have spiked recently (it tells us very little about monetary conditions) – but I would focus instead on the markets’ serious nervousness about whether the ECB will prematurely end its QE programme.

There would be no reason for such nervousness if the ECB clearly spelled out that it does not intend to let a negative supply shock change its plans for quantitative easing, and that it is intent on ensuring nominal stability. I have given some suggestions on how the ECB could do that, and I fundamentally think that Mario Draghi understands that the ECB needs to move in this direction. Now he just needs to make it completely clear to the markets (and the Bundesbank?)


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