Next stop Moscow

I am writing this as I am flying to Moscow to spend a couple of days meeting clients in Moscow. It will be nice to be back. A lot of things are happing in Russia at the moment – especially politically. A new opposition has emerged to President Putin’s regime. However, even though politics always comes up when you are in Russia I do not plan to talk too much about the political situation. Everybody is doing that – so I will instead focus my presentations on monetary policy matters as I believe that monetary policy mistakes have been at the core of economic developments in Russia over the last couple of years. I hope to add some value as I believe that few local investors in Russia are aware of how crucial the monetary development is.

Here are my main topics:

1) The crucial link between oil prices, exchange rate developments and monetary policy. Hence, what we could call the petro-monetary transmission mechanism in the Russian economy

2) Based on the analysis of the petro-monetary transmission mechanism I will demonstrate that the deep, but short, Russian recession in 2008-9 was caused by monetary policy failure. This is what Robert Hetzel calls the “monetary disorder view” of recession

3) Why the Russian economy is in recovery and the role played by monetary easing

4) Changing the monetary regime: The Russian central bank (CBR) has said it wants to make the Russian ruble freely floating in 2013 (I doubt that will happen…). What could be the strategy for CBR to move in that direction?

The petro-monetary transmission mechanism
When talking about the Russian economy with investors I often find that they have a black-box view of the Russian economy. For most people the Russian economy seems very easy to understand – too easy I would argue. On the one hand the they see oil prices going up or down and on the other hand they see growth going up or down.

And it is also correct that if one has a look at real or nominal GDP growth of the past decade then one would spot a pretty strong correlation to changes in oil prices. That makes most people think that when oil prices increase Russian exports increase and as result GDP increases. However, this is the common mistake when doing economics based on a simple quasi-Keynesian national accounting identity Y=C+I+X+G+NX.

What most people believe is happening is that net exports (NX) increase when oil prices increase. As a result Y increases (everything else is just assumed to be a function of Y). However, a closer look at the Russian data will make you realise that this is not correct. In fact during the boom-years 2005-8 net exports was actually “contributing” negatively to GDP growth as import growth was outpacing export growth.

So what did really happen? Well, we have to study the crucial link between oil prices, the ruble exchange rate and money supply.

As I have described in an earlier post the Russian central bank (CBR) despite its stated goal of floating the ruble suffers from a distinct fear-of-floating. The CBR simply dislikes currency volatility. Therefore, when the ruble is strengthening the CBR would intervene in the FX market (printing ruble) to curb the strengthening. And it would also intervene (buying ruble) when the currency is weakening. In recent years it has been doing so by managing the ruble against a basket of euros (55%) and dollars (45%).

This is really the reason for the link between oil prices and the GDP (both real and nominal) growth. Imagine that oil prices increases strongly as was the case in the years just prior to crisis hit in 2008. In such that situation oil exports revenues will be increasing (even if oil output in Russian is stagnated). With oil revenues increasing the ruble would tend to strengthen. However, the CBR is keeping the ruble more or less stable against the EUR-USD basket and it therefore will have to sell ruble (increase the money supply) to avoid the ruble strengthening (“too much” for CBR’s liking).

This is the petro-monetary link. Increased oil prices increase the money supply as a result of the CBR quasi-fixing of the ruble.

Therefore, it makes much more sense instead of a national account approach to go back to the most important equation in macroeconomics – the equation of exchange:

(1) MV=PY

Russian money-velocity (V) has been declining around a fairly stable trend over the past decade. We can therefore assume – to make things slightly easier that V has been growing (actually declining) at a fairly stable rate v’. We can then write (1) in growth rates:

(2) m+v’=p+y

As we know from above money supply growth (m) is a function of oil prices (oil) – if CBR is quasi-pegging the ruble:

(3) m=a*oil

a is a constant.

Lets also introduce a (very!) simple Phillips curve into the economy:

(4) p=by

p is of course inflation and y is real GDP growth. Equation 2,3 and 4 together is a very simple model of the Russian economy, but I frankly speaking think that is all you need to analyse the business cycle dynamics in the Russian economy given the present monetary policy set-up. (You could analyse the risk of bubbles in property market by introducing traded and non-trade goods, but lets look at that in another blog post).

If we assume oil prices (oil) and trend-velocity (v’) are exogenous it is pretty easy to solve the model for m, p and y.

Lets solve it for y by inserting (3) and (4) into (2). Then we get:

(2)’ a*oil+v’=(1+b)y

(2)’ y= a/(1+b)*oil+1/(1+b)*v’

So here we go – assuming sticky prices (the Phillips curve relationship between p and y) we get a relationship between real GDP growth and oil price changes similar to the “common man’s model” for the Russian economy. However, this link does only exist because of the conduct of monetary policy. The CBR is managing the float of the ruble, which creates the link between oil prices and real GDP growth. Had the CBR instead let the ruble float freely or linked the ruble in some way to oil prices then the oil price-gdp link would have broken down.

The CBR caused the 2009 crisis

You can easily use the model above to analyse what happen to the Russian economy in 2008-2009. I have already in a previous post demonstrated that the CBR caused the crisis in 2008-9 by not allowing the ruble to depreciate enough in the autumn of 2008.

Lets have a short look at the crisis through the lens of the model above. What happened in 2008 was that oil prices plummeted. As a consequence the ruble started to weaken. The CBR however, did not want to allow that so it intervened in the FX market – buying ruble and selling foreign currency. That is basically equation (3). Oil prices (oil) dropped, which caused the Russian money supply (m) to drop 20 % in October-November 2008.

As m drops it most follow from (2) that p and/or y will drop as well (remember we assume v’ to be constant). However, because p is sticky – that’s equation (4) – real GDP (y) will have to drop. And that is of course what happened. Russia saw the largest drop in real GDP (y) in G20.

It’s really that simple…and everything that followed – for example a relatively large banking crisis – was caused by these factors. Had the ruble been allowed to drop then the banking crisis would likely have been much smaller in scale.

Recovery time…

On to the next step. In early 2009 the Federal Reserve acted by moving towards more aggressive monetary easing and that caused global oil prices to rebound. As a result the ruble started to recover. Once again that CBR did not allow the ruble to be determined by market forces. Instead the CBR moved to curb the strengthening of the ruble. We are now back to equation (3). With oil prices (oil) increasing money supply growth (m) finally started to accelerate in 2009-10. With m increasing p and y would have to increase – we know that from equation (2) – and as p is sticky most of the initial adjustment would happen through higher real GDP growth (y). That is exactly what happened and that process has continued more or less until today.

It now seems like we have gone full cycle and that the Russian economy is operating close to full capacity and there are pretty clear signs that we now are moving back to an overly expansionary monetary policy. The question therefore is what is next for the CBR?

Time to move to a new monetary regime

The Russian central bank has announced that it wants to move to a freely floating ruble in 2013. That would make good sense as the discussion above in my view pretty clearly demonstrates that the CBR’s present monetary policy set-up has been extremely costly and lead to quite significant misallocation of economic resources.

Furthermore, as I have demonstrated above the link between economic activity and oil prices only exist in the Russian economy do to the conduct of monetary policy in Russia. If the ruble was allowed to fluctuate more freely, then we would get a much more stable development in not only inflation and nominal GDP (which is fully determined by monetary factors), but also in real GDP.

But how would you move from the one regime to the other. The simple solution would of course be to announce one day that from today the ruble is freely floating. That, however, would still beg the question what should the CBR then target and what instruments should it use to achieve this target?

Obviously as a Market Monetarist I think that the CBR should move towards a monetary regime in which relative prices are not distorted. A NGDP level targeting regime would clearly achieve that. That said, I am very sceptical about the quality of national account data in Russia and it might therefore in praxis be rather hard to implement a strict NGDP level targeting regime (at least given the present data quality). Second, even though I as a Friedmanite am strongly inclined to be in favour floating exchange rates I also believe that using the FX rate as a monetary instrument would be most practical in Russia given it’s fairly underdeveloped financial markets and (over) regulated banking sector.

Therefore, even though I certainly think a NGDP level target regime and floating exchange rates is a very good long-term objective for Russia I think it might make sense to move there gradually. The best way to do so would be for the CBR to announce a target level for NGDP, but implement this target by managing the ruble against a basket of euros and dollars (that is basically the present basket) and oil prices (measured in ruble).

Even though the CBR now is targeting a EUR-USD basket it allows quite a bit of fluctuations around the basket. These fluctuations to a large extent are determined by fluctuations in oil prices. Therefore, we can say that the CBR effective already has included oil prices in the basket. In my view oil prices effectively are somewhere between 5 and 10% of the “basket”. I think that the CBR should make that policy official and at the same time it should announce that it would increase the oil prices share of the basket to 30% in 1-2 years time. That I believe would more or less give the same kind of volatility in the ruble we are presently seeing in the much more freely floating Norwegian krone.

Furthermore, it would seriously reduce the link between swings in oil prices and in the economy. Hence, monetary policy’s impact on relative prices would be seriously reduced and as I have shown in my previous post there has been a close relationship between oil prices measured in ruble and nominal GDP growth. Hence, if the stability of oil prices measured in ruble is increased (which would happen if oil prices is included in the FX basket) then nominal GDP will also become much more stable. It will not be perfect, but I believe it would be a significant step in the direction of serious increasing nominal stability in Russia.

I am now finishing this blog post in the airport in Moscow waiting for a local colleague to pick me up, while talking to a very drunk ethic Russian Latvian who is on his way to Kazakhstan. He is friendly, but very drunk and not really interested in monetary theory…I hope the audience in the coming days

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

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

The euro zone-US connection

– why the dollar’ status as reserve currency is important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear-of-floating via inflation targeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation

There is a couple of topics that have been on my mind lately and they have made me want to write this post. In the post I will claim that inflation targeting is a soft-version of what economists have called the fear-of-floating. But before getting to that let me run through the topics on my mind.

1) Last week I did a presentation for a group of Norwegian investors and even thought the topic was the Central and Eastern European economies the topic of Norwegian monetary politics came up. I am no big expert on the Norwegian economy or Norwegian monetary policy so I ran for the door or rather I started to talk about an other large oil producing economy, which I know much better – The Russian economy. I essentially re-told what I recently wrote about in a blog post on the Russian central bank causing the 2008/9-crisis in the Russian economy, by not allowing the ruble to drop in line with oil prices in the autumn of 2008. I told the Norwegian investors that the Russian central bank was suffering from a fear-of-floating. That rang a bell with the Norwegian investors – and they claimed – and rightly so I think – that the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank) also suffers from a fear-of-floating. They had an excellent point: The Norwegian economy is booming, domestic demand continues to growth very strongly despite weak global growth, asset prices – particularly property prices – are rising strongly and unemployment is very low and finally do I need to mention that Norwegian NGDP long ago have returned to the pre-crisis trend? So all in all if anything the Norwegian economy probably needs tighter monetary policy rather than easier monetary policy. However, this is not what Norges Bank is discussing. If anything the Norges Bank has recently been moving towards monetary easing. In fact in March Norges Bank surprised investors by cutting interest rates and directly cited the strength of the Norwegian krone as a reason for the rate cut.

2) My recent interest in Jeff Frankel’s idea that commodity exporters should peg their currency to the price of the main export (PEP) has made me think about the connect between floating exchange rates and what monetary target the central bank operates. Frankel in one of his papers shows that historically there has been a rather high positive correlation between higher import prices and monetary tightening (currency appreciation) in countries with floating exchange rates and inflation targeting. The mechanism is clear – strict inflation targeting central banks an increase in import prices will cause headline inflation to increase as the aggregate supply curve shots to the left and as the central bank does not differentiate between supply shocks and nominal shocks it will react to a negative supply shock by tightening monetary policy causing the currency to strengthen. Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that central banks should not react to supply shocks and should allow higher import prices to feed through to higher inflation – this is basically George Selgin’s productivity norm. Very few central banks allow this to happen – just remember the ECB’s two ill-fated rate hikes in 2011, which primarily was a response to higher import prices. Sad, but true.

3) Scott Sumner tells us that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Expectations are tremendously important for the monetary transmission mechanism. One of the main channels by which monetary policy works in a small-open economy  – with long and variable leads – is the exchange rate channel. Taking the point 2 into consideration any investor would expect the ECB to tighten monetary policy  in responds to a negative supply shock in the form of a increase in import prices. Therefore, we would get an automatic strengthening of the euro if for example oil prices rose. The more credible an inflation target’er the central bank is the stronger the strengthening of the currency. On the other hand if the central bank is not targeting inflation, but instead export prices as Frankel is suggesting or the NGDP level then the currency would not “automatically” tend to strengthen in responds to higher oil prices. Hence, the correlation between the currency and import prices strictly depends on what monetary policy rule is in place.

These three point leads me to the conclusion that inflation targeting really just is a stealth version of the fear-of-floating. So why is that? Well, normally we would talk about the fear-of-floating when the central bank acts and cut rates in responds to the currency strengthening (at a point in time when the state of the economy does not warrant a rate cut). However, in a world of forward-looking investors the currency tends move as-if we had the old-fashioned form of fear-of-floating – it might be that higher oil prices leads to a strengthening of the Norwegian krone, but expectations of interest rate cuts will curb the strengthen of NOK. Similarly the euro is likely to be stronger than it otherwise would have been when oil prices rise as the ECB again and again has demonstrated the it reacts to negative supply shocks with monetary easing.

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation 

And this lead me to my conclusion. We cannot fundamentally say that currencies are truly floating as long as central banks continue to react to higher import prices due to inflation targeting mandates. We might formally have laid behind us the days of managed exchange rates (at least in North America and Europe), but de facto we have reintroduced it with inflation targeting. As a consequence monetary policy becomes excessively easy (tight) when import prices are dropping (increasing) and this is the recipe for boom-bust. Therefore, floating exchange rates and inflation targeting is not that happy a couple it often is made out to be and we can fundamentally only talk about truly floating exchange rates when monetary policy cease to react to supply shocks.

Therefore, the best way to ensure true exchange rates flexibility is through NGDP level targeting and if we want to manage exchange rates then at least do it by targeting the export price rather than the import price.

PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure

I am sitting in Riga airport and writing this. I have an early (too early!) flight to Stockholm. I must admit it makes it slightly more fun to sit in an airport when you can do a bit of blogging.

Anyway, I have been giving quite a bit of thought to the Jeff Frankel’s idea about “Peg to the Export Price” (PEP). What Frankel’s is suggesting is that commodity exporters like Russia should peg their currencies to the price of the main commodity they export – in the case of Russia that would of course be the oil price.

This have made me think about the monetary transmission mechanism in an Emerging Market commodity exporter like Russia and how very few people really understand how monetary policy works in an economy like the Russian. I have, however, for more than a decade as part of my day-job spend quite a lot of time analysing the Russian economy so in this post I will try to spell out how I see the last couple of years economic development in Russia from a monetary perspective.

The oil-money nexus and why a higher oil price is a demand shock in Russia

Since the end of communism the Russian central bank has primarily conducted monetary policy by intervening in the currency market and currency intervention remains the Russian central bank’s (CBR) most important policy instrument. (Yes, I know this is a simplification, but bear with me…)

In the present Russian monetary set-up the CBR manages the ruble within a fluctuation band against a basket of euros (45%) and dollars (55%). The composition of the basket has changed over time and the CBR has gradually widened the fluctuation band so one can say that we today has moved closer to a managed or dirty float rather than a purely fixed currency. However, despite of for years having had the official intention of moving to a free float it is very clear that the CBR has a quite distinct “fear of floating”.  The CBR is not alone in this – many central banks around the world suffer from this rather irrational fear. This is also the case for countries in which the central banks officially pursue a floating exchange rate policy. How often have you not heard central bankers complain that the currency is too strong or too weak?

With the ruble being quasi-fixed changes in the money supply is basically determined by currency inflows and outflows and as oil and gas is Russia’s main exports (around 80% of total exports) changes in the oil prices determines these flows and hence the money supply.

Lets say that the global demand for oil increases and as a consequence oil prices increase by 10%. This will more or less lead to an 10% increase in the currency inflow into Russia. With inflows increasing the ruble will tend to strengthen. However, historically the CBR has not been happy to see such inflow translate into a strengthening of the ruble and as a consequence it has intervened in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble. This basically means that that CBR is printing ruble and buying foreign currency. The logic consequence of this is the CBR rather than allowing the ruble to strengthen instead is accumulating ever-larger foreign currency reserves as the oil price is increasing. This basically has been the trend for the last decade or so.

So due to the CBR’s FX policy there is a more or less direct link from rising oil prices to an expansion of the Russian money supply. As we all know MV=PY so with unchanged money-velocity (V) an increase in M will lead to an increase in PY (nominal GDP).

This illustrates a very important point. Normally we tend to associate increases in oil prices with a supply shock. However, in the case of Russia and other oil exporting countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates an increase in the oil price will be a positive demand shock. Said in another other higher oil prices will push the AD curve to the right. This is also why higher oil prices have not always lead to a higher current account surplus in Russia – higher oil prices will boost private consumption growth and investments growth through an increase in the money supply. This is not exactly good news for the current account.

The point that an increase in oil prices is a demand shock in Russia is illustrated in the graph below. Over the past decade there has been a rather strong positive correlation changes in the price of oil (measured in ruble) and the growth of nominal GDP.

This correlation, however, can only exist as long as the CBR intervenes in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble and if the CBR finally moved to a free floating ruble then the this correlation most likely would break down. Hence, with a freely floating ruble the money supply and hence NGDP would be unaffected by higher or lower oil prices.

PEP would effective have been a ‘productivity norm’ in Russia

So by allowing the ruble to appreciate when oil prices are increase it will effective stabilise the development the money supply and therefore in NGDP. Another way to achieve this disconnect between NGDP and oil prices would be to directly peg the ruble to the oil price. So an increase in the oil price of 10% would directly lead to an appreciation of the ruble of 10% (against the dollar).

As the graph above shows there has been a very close correlation between changes in the oil prices (measured in ruble) and NGDP. Furthermore, over the past decade oil prices has increased around 20% yearly versus the ruble and the yearly average growth of nominal GDP has been the exactly the same. As a consequence had the CBR pegged pegged the ruble a decade ago then the growth of NGDP would likely have averaged 0% per year.

With NGDP growth “pegged” by PEP to 0% we would effectively have had what George Selgin has termed a “productivity norm” in Russia where higher real GDP growth (higher productivity growth) would lead to lower prices. Remember again – if MV=PY and MV is fixed through PEP then any increase in Y will have to lead to lower P. However, as oil prices measured in ruble are fixed it would only be the prices of non-tradable goods (locally produced and consumed goods), which would drop. This undoubtedly would have been a much better policy than the one the CBR has pursued for the last decade – and a boom and bust would have been avoid from 2005 to 2009. (And yes, I assume that nominal rigidities would not have created too large problems).

Russia boom-bust and how tight money cause the 2008-9 crisis in Russia

Anybody who visits Moscow will hear stories of insanely high property prices and especially during the boom years from 2006 to when crisis hit in 2008 property prices exploded in Russia’s big cities such St. Petersburg and Moscow. There is not doubt in my mind that this property market boom was caused my the very steep increase in the Russian money supply which was a direct consequence of the CBR’s fear of floating the ruble. As oil prices where increasing and currency inflows accelerated in 2006-7 the CBR intervened to curb the strengthening of the ruble.

However, the boom came to a sudden halt in 2008, however, unlike what is the common perception the crisis that hit hard in 2008 was not a consequence of the drop in oil prices, but rather as a result of too tight monetary policy. Yes, my friends recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon and that is also the case in Russia!

Global oil prices started to drop in July 2008 and initially the Russian central bank allowed the ruble to weaken. However, as the sell-off in global oil prices escalated in Q3 2008 the CBR clearly started to worry about the impact it would have on ruble. As a consequence the CBR started intervening very heavily in the FX markets to halt the sell-off in the ruble. Obviously to do this the CBR had to buy ruble and sell foreign currency, which naturally lead to drop in the Russian foreign currency reserves of around 200bn dollars in Q3 2008 and a very sharp contraction in the Russian money supply (M2 dropped around 20%!). This misguided intervention in the currency market and the monetary contraction that followed lead to a collapse in Russian property prices and sparked a major banking crisis in Russia – luckily the largest Russian banks was not too badly affected by this a number medium sized banks collapsed in late 2008 and early 2009. As a consequence money velocity also contracted, which further worsened the economic crisis. In fact the drop in real GDP was the latest among the G20 in 2008-9.

…and how monetary expansion brought Russia out of the crisis

As the Russian FX reserve was dwindling in the Autumn 2008 the Russian central bank (probably) realised that either it would cease intervening in the FX or be faced with a situation where the FX reserve would vanish. Therefore by December 2008 the CBR stepped back from the FX market and allowed for a steeper decline in the value of the ruble. As consequence the contraction in the Russian money supply came to an end. Furthermore, as the Federal Reserve finally started to ease US monetary policy in early 2009 global oil prices started to recover and as CBR now did not allow the rub to strengthen at the same pace of rising oil prices the price of oil measured in ruble increase quite a bit in the first half of 2009.

The monetary expansion has continued until today and as a consequence the Russian economy has continued to recover. In fact contrary to the situation in the US and the euro zone one could easily argue that monetary tightening is warranted it in Russia.

Oil prices should be included in the RUB basket

I hope that my arguments above illustrate how the Russian crisis of 2008-9 can be explained by what the great Bob Hetzel calls the monetary disorder view. I have no doubt that if the Russian central bank had allowed for a freely floating ruble then the boom (and misallocation) in 2006-7 would have been reduced significantly and had the ruble been allowed to drop more sharply in line with oil prices in the Autumn of 2008 then the crisis would have been much smaller and banking crisis would likely have been avoided.

Therefore, the policy recommendation must be that the CBR should move to a free float of ruble and I certainly think it would make sense for Russia also to introduce a NGDP level target. However, the Russian central bank despite the promises that the ruble soon will be floated (at the moment the CBR say it will happen in 2013) clearly seems to maintain a fear of floating. Furthermore, I would caution that the quality of economic data in Russia in general is rather pure, which would make a regular NGDP level targeting regime more challenging. At the same time with a relatively underdeveloped financial sector and a generally low level of liquidity in the Russian financial markets it might be challenging to conduct monetary policy in Russian through open market operations and interest rate changes.

As a consequence it might be an idea for Russia to move towards implementing PEP – or rather a variation of PEP. Today the CBR manages the ruble against a basket of euros and dollars and in my view it would make a lot of sense to expand this basket with oil prices. To begin with oil prices could be introduced into the basket with a 20% weight and then a 40% weight for both euros and dollars. This is far from perfect and the goal certainly should still be to move to a free floating ruble, but under the present circumstances it would be much preferable to the present monetary set-up and would strongly reduce the risk of renewed bubbles in the Russian economy and as well as insuring against a monetary contraction in the event of a new sharp sell-off in oil prices.

…as I am finishing this post my taxi is parking in front of my hotel in Stockholm so now you know what you will be able to write going from Latvia to Sweden on an early Wednesday morning. Later today I will be doing a presentation for Danske Bank’s clients in Stockholm. The topics are Emerging Markets and wine economics! (Yes, wine economics…after all I am a proud member for the American Association of Wine Economists).

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