The ideal central banker spends most of his time golfing

Who is the best central banker – one who is very busy with his job or one who is spending most of his/her time on the golf field?

The answer is the golfing central banker is the best of the two because if you are very busy you have probably not been doing your job in a proper fashion. The task of any central banker should be to ensure nominal stability and not to distort relative prices in the economy.

The best way to ensure nominal stability is through implementing a monetary policy regime based on very clear, transparent and automatic rules. Central bankers that do that will not have a lot to do as the markets would do most of the lifting.

This is in fact what happened during the Great Moderation – both in the US and in most of Europe. During the Great Moderation the markets’ had a high level of trust in the credibility of central banks in the US and Europe and in general it was expected that these central banks would deliver nominal stability. In fact markets behaved as if the Fed and the ECB were targeting a NGDP level target. This meant that what central bankers basically had do was to put on the central banker outfit (a dark suit and a not too fancy tie) and then say things that confirmed the markets in the expectation that the central bank would ensure nominal stability. There would be lot of time for golfing in that scenario.

If the central bank is fully credible and monetary policy follow clear rules (for example a NGDP level target) then the central bankers are unlike to be busy – at least not with monetary policy. Monetary demand would simply move up and down and more or less ensure the fulfillment of the nominal target. However, if the central bank is not credible then there will be no time to spend on the golf course.

Lets say that the central bank has a NGDP level target and the NGDP level moves above the target level. In the case of the credible central bank the markets would expect the central bank to act to bring down NGDP to the target level. Hence, market participants would expect monetary policy to be tightened. This would lead to a strengthening of the country’s currency and a drop in stock prices. Similarly as investors and consumers expect tighter monetary policy they would expect the value of money to increase. As a consequence investors and consumers would increase money demand. All this would automatically slow NGDP growth and bring back the NGDP level to the target level. In the scenario with a 100% credible target the central bank would not do anything other than look serious and central bank-like and the market would take care of everything else. Changes in money demand rather than in the money supply that would ensure the fulfillment of the target.

On the other hand if the central bank is not credible then market participants would not expect the that the central bank would bring the NGDP level back on track. In this scenario the central bank would actively have to change the money supply to push back NGDP to the target level. In fact it might have to reduce the money supply a lot to counteract any moves in money demand. Hence, if NGDP increases above the target level and the central bank does not act then market participants would in fact think that the central bank will continue to increase NGDP and as a consequence money demand will drop like a stone. Therefore the central bank would be very busy trying to steer the money supply and would likely not succeed if it does not gain credibility and money-velocity would become increasingly erratic. This is why inflation normally increases much more than the money supply in the “normal” hyperinflation scenario.

The worst possible scenario is that the central bankers start to micromanage things. He/she does not like the currency to be too strong, but property prices are too high and credit growth too strong for his liking. And he is very concerned about foreign currency lending among households. But he is also concerned about the export sector’s weak competitiveness. So he is intervening in the currency market to weaken the currency, but that is spurring money supply growth and he does not like that either so he is telling commercial bank to stop the credit expansion or he will increase reserve requirements. The threats works. The commercial banks curb lending growth, but other players are not willing to listen – so more shady players in the consumer credit market moves in. No time for golfing and the central bankers is just getting more and more angry. “Stupid banks and markets. Can’t they understand that I can’t do everything?”  

This might be a caricature, but look at most central banks in the developed world since 2008 – they have been very busy and they have to a very large extent been busy micromanaging things. And regulators have not made their job easier.

So why is that? They are simply no longer credible central bankers. There is no time for golfing because the focus has been on micromanaging everything rather than on recreating credibility. It is time for that to change so central bankers once again will have time for golfing – and the global economy finally can move out of this crisis.

 

 

 

Lets concentrate on the policy framework

Here is Scott Sumner:

I’ve noticed that when I discuss economic policy with other free market types, it’s easier to get agreement on broad policy rules than day-to-day discretionary decisions.

I have noticed the same thing – or rather I find that when pro-market economists are presented with Market Monetarist ideas based on the fact that we want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks then it is much easier to sell our views than when we just argue for monetary “stimulus”. I don’t want central bank to ease monetary policy. I don’t want central banks to tighten monetary policy. I simply want to central banks to stop distorting relative prices. I believe the best way to ensure that is with futures based NGDP targeting as this is the closest we get to the outcome that would prevail under a truly free monetary system with competitive issuance of money.

I have often argued that NGDP level targeting is not about monetary stimulus (See here, here and here) and argued that NGDP level targeting is the truly free market alternative (see here).

This in my view is the uniting view for free market oriented economists. We can disagree about whether monetary policy was too loose in the US and Europe prior to 2008 or whether it became too tight in 2008/9. My personal view is that both US and European monetary policy likely was (a bit!) too loose prior to 2008, but then turned extremely tight in 2008/09. The Great Depression was not caused by too easy monetary policy, but too tight monetary policy. However, in terms of policy recommendations is that really important? Yes it is important in the sense of what we think that the Fed or the ECB should do right now in the absence of a clear framework of NGDP targeting (or any other clear nominal target). However, the really important thing is not whether the Fed or the ECB will ease a little bit more or a little less in the coming month or quarter, but how we ensure the right institutional framework to avoid a future repeat of the catastrophic policy response in 2008/9 (and 2011!). In fact I would be more than happy if we could convince the ECB and the Fed to implement NGDP level target at the present levels of NGDP in Europe and the US – that would mean a lot more to me than a little bit more easing from the major central banks of the world (even though I continue to think that would be highly desirable as well).

What can Scott Sumner, George Selgin, Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Bob Murphy and John Taylor all agree about? They want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks. Some of them would like to get rid of central banks all together, but as long as that option is not on the table they they all want to tie the hands of central bankers as much as possible. Scott, Steve and George all would agree that a form of nominal income targeting would be the best rule. Taylor might be convinced about that I think if it was completely rule based (at least if he listens to Evan Koeing). Bob of course want something completely else, but I think that even he would agree that a futures based NGDP targeting regime would be preferable to the present discretionary policies.

So maybe it is about time that we take this step by step and instead of screaming for monetary stimulus in the US and Europe start build alliances with those economists who really should endorse Market Monetarist ideas in the first place.

Here are the steps – or rather the questions Market Monetarists should ask other free market types (as Scott calls them…):

1) Do you agree that in the absence of Free Banking that monetary policy should be rule based rather than based on discretion?

2) Do you agree that markets send useful and appropriate signals for the conduct of monetary policy?

3) Do you agree that the market should be used to do forecasting for central banks and to markets should be used to implement policies rather than to leave it to technocrats? For example through the use of prediction markets and futures markets. (See my comments on prediction markets and market based monetary policy here and here).

4) Do you agree that there is good and bad inflation and good and bad deflation?

5) Do you agree that central banks should not respond to non-monetary shocks to the price level?

6) Do you agree that monetary policy can not solve all problems? (This Market Monetarists do not think so – see here)

7) Do you agree that the appropriate target for a central bank should be to the NGDP level?

I am pretty sure that most free market oriented monetary economists would answer “yes” to most of these questions. I would of course answer “yes” to them all.

So I suggest to my fellow Market Monetarists that these are the questions we should ask other free market economists instead of telling them that they are wrong about being against QE3 from the Fed. In fact would it really be strategically correct to argue for QE3 in the US right now? I am not sure. I would rather argue for strict NGDP level targeting and then I am pretty sure that the Chuck Norris effect and the market would do most of the lifting. We should basically stop arguing in favour of or against any discretionary policies.

PS I remain totally convinced that when economists in future discuss the causes of the Great Recession then the consensus among monetary historians will be that the Hetzelian-Sumnerian explanation of the crisis was correct. Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner are the Hawtreys and Cassels of the day.

Chuck Norris just pushed S&P500 above 1400

Today S&P500 closed above 1400 for the first time since June 2008. Hence, the US stock market is now well above the levels when Lehman Brothers collapsed in October 2008. So in terms of the US stock market at least the crisis is over. Obviously that can hardly be said for the labour market situation in the US and most European stock markets are still well below the levels of 2008.

So what have happened? Well, I think it is pretty clear that monetary policy has become more easy. Stock prices are up, commodity prices are rising and recently US long-term bond yields have also started to increase. As David Glasner notices in a recent post – the correlation between US stock prices and bond yields is now positive. This is how it used to be during the Great Moderation and is actually an indication that central banks are regaining some credibility.

By credibility I mean that market participants now are beginning to expect that central banks will actually again provide some nominal stability. This have not been directly been articulated. But remember during the Great Moderation the Federal Reserve never directly articulated that it de facto was following a NGDP level target, but as Josh Hendrickson has shown that is exactly what it actually did – and market participants knew that (even though most market participants might not have understood the bigger picture). As a commenter on my blog recently argued (central banks’) credibility is earned with long and variable lags (thank you Steve!). Said in another way one thing is nominal targets and other thing is to demonstrate that you actually are willing to do everything to achieve this target and thereby make the target credible.

Since December 8 when the ECB de facto introduced significant quantitative easing via it’s so-called 3-year LTRO market sentiment has changed. Rightly or wrongly market participants seem to think that the ECB has changed it’s reaction function. While the fear in November-December was that the ECB would not react to the sharp deflationary tendencies in the euro zone it is now clear that the ECB is in fact willing to ease monetary policy. I have earlier shown that the 3y LTRO significantly has reduced the the likelihood of a euro blow up. This has sharply reduced the demand for save haven currencies – particularly for the US dollars, but also the yen and the Swiss franc. Lower dollar demand is of course the same as a (passive) easing of US monetary conditions. You can say that the ECB has eased US monetary policy! This is the opposite of what happened in the Autumn of 2010 when the Fed’s QE2 effectively eased European monetary conditions.

Furthermore, we have actually had a change in a nominal target as the Bank of Japan less than a month ago upped it’s inflation target from 0% to 1% – thereby effectively telling the markets that the bank will step up monetary easing. The result has been clear – just have a look at the slide in the yen over the last month. Did the Bank of Japan announce a massive new QE programme? No it just called in Chuck Norris! This is of course the Chuck Norris effect in play – you don’t have to print money to see monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target.

So both the ECB and the BoJ has demonstrated that they want to move monetary policy in a more accommodative direction and the financial markets have reacted. The markets seem to think that the major global central banks indeed want to avoid a deflationary collapse and recreate nominal stability. We still don’t know if the markets are right, but I tend to think they are. Yes, neither the Fed nor the ECB have provide a clear definition of their nominal targets, but the Bank of Japan has clearly moved closer.

Effective the signal from the major global central banks is yes, we know monetary policy is potent and we want to use monetary policy to increase NGDP. This is at least how market participants are reading the signals – stock prices are up, so are commodity prices and most important inflation expectations and bond yields are increasing. This is basically the same as saying that money demand in the US, Europe and Japan is declining. Lower money demand equals higher money velocity and remember (if you had forgot) MV=PY. So with unchanged money supply (M) higher V has to lead to higher NGDP (PY). This is the Chuck Norris effect – the central banks don’t need to increase the money base/supply if they can convince market participants that they want an higher NGDP – the markets are doing all the lifting. Furthermore, it should be noted that the much feared global currency war is also helping ease global monetary conditions.

This obviously is very good news for the global economy and if the central banks do not panic once inflation and growth start to inch up and reverse the (passive) easing of monetary policy then it is my guess we could be in for a rather sharp recovery in global growth in the coming quarters. But hey, my blog is not about forecasting markets or the global economy – I do that in my day-job – but what we are seeing in the markets these days to me is a pretty clear indication of how powerful the Chuck Norris effect can be.  If central banks just could realise that and announced much more clear nominal targets then this crisis could be over very fast…

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PS For the record this is not investment advise and should not be seen as such, but rather as an attempt to illustrate how the monetary transmission mechanism works through expectations and credibility.

PPS a similar story…this time from my day-job.

Long and variable leads and lags

Scott Sumner yesterday posted a excellent overview of some key Market Monetarist positions. I initially thought I would also write a comment on what I think is the main positions of Market Monetarism but then realised that I already done that in my Working Paper on Market Monetarism from last year – “Market  Monetarism – The  Second  Monetarist  Counter-­revolution”

My fundamental view is that I personally do not mind being called an monetarist rather than a Market Monetarist even though I certainly think that Market Monetarism have some qualities that we do not find in traditional monetarism, but I fundamentally think Market Monetarism is a modern restatement of Monetarism rather than something fundamentally new.

I think the most important development in Market Monetarism is exactly that we as Market Monetarists stress the importance of expectations and how expectations of monetary policy can be read directly from market pricing. At the core of traditional monetarism is the assumption of adaptive expectations. However, today all economists acknowledge that economic agents (at least to some extent) are forward-looking and personally I have no problem in expressing that in the form of rational expectations – a view that Scott agrees with as do New Keynesians. However, unlike New Keynesian we stress that we can read these expectations directly from financial market pricing – stock prices, bond yields, commodity prices and exchange rates. Hence, by looking at changes in market pricing we can see whether monetary policy is becoming tighter or looser. This also has to do with our more nuanced view of the monetary transmission mechanism than is found among mainstream economists – including New Keynesians. As Scott express it:

Like monetarists, we assume many different transmission channels, not just interest rates.  Money affects all sorts of asset prices.  One slight difference from traditional monetarism is that we put more weight on the expected future level of NGDP, and hence the expected future hot potato effect.  Higher expected future NGDP tends to increase current AD, and current NGDP.

This is basically also the reason why Scott has stressed that monetary policy works with long and variable leads rather than with long and variable lags as traditionally expressed by Milton Friedman. In my view there is however really no conflict between the two positions and both are possible dependent on the institutional set-up in a given country at a given time.

Imagine the typical monetary policy set-up during the 1960s or 1970s when Friedman was doing research on monetary matters. During this period monetary policy clearly was missing a nominal anchor. Hence, there was no nominal target for monetary policy. Monetary policy was highly discretionary. In this environment it was very hard for market participants to forecast what policies to expect from for example the Federal Reserve. In fact in the 1960s and 1970s the Fed would not even bother to announce to market participant that it had changed monetary policy – it would simply just change the policy – for example interest rates. Furthermore, as the Fed was basically not communicating directly with the markets market participant would have to guess why a certain policy change had been implemented. As a result in such an institutional set-up market participants basically by default would have backward-looking expectations and would only gradually learn about what the Fed was trying to achieve. In such a set-up monetary policy nearly by definition would work with long and variable lags.

Contrary to this is the kind of set-up we had during the Great Moderation. Even though the Federal Reserve had not clearly formulated its policy target (it still hasn’t) market participants had a pretty good idea that the Fed probably was targeting the nominal GDP level or followed a kind of Taylor rule and market participants rarely got surprised by policy changes. Hence, market participants could reasonably deduct from economic and financial developments how policy would be change in the future. During this period monetary policy basically became endogenous. If NGDP was above trend then market participant would expect that monetary policy would be tightened. That would increase money demand and push down money-velocity and push up short-term interest rates. Often the Fed would even hint in what direction monetary policy was headed which would move stock prices, commodity prices, the exchange rates and bond yields in advance for any actual policy change. A good example of this dynamics is what we saw during early 2001. As a market participant I remember that the US stock market would rally on days when weak US macroeconomic data were released as market participants priced in future monetary easing. Hence, during this period monetary policy clear worked with long and variable leads.

In fact if we lived in a world of perfectly credible NGDP level targeting monetary policy would be fully automatic and probably monetary easing and tightening would happen through changes in money demand rather than through changes in the money base. In such a world the lead in monetary policy would be extremely short. This is the Market Monetarist dream world. In fact we could say that not only is “long and variable leads” a description of how the world is, but a normative position of how it should be.

Concluding there is no conflict between whether monetary policy works with long and variable leads or lags, but rather this is strictly dependent on the monetary policy regime and how monetary policy is implemented. A key problem in both the ECB’s and the Fed’s present policies today is that both central banks are far from clear about what nominal targets they have and how to achieve it – in some ways we are back to the pre-Great Moderation days of policy uncertainty. As a consequence market participants will only gradually learn about what the central bank’s real policy objectives are and therefore there is clearly an element of long and variable lags in monetary policy. However, if the Fed tomorrow announced that it would aim to increase NGDP by 15% by the end of 2013 and it would try to achieve that by buying unlimited amounts of foreign currency I am pretty sure we would swiftly move to a world of instantaneously working monetary policy – hence we would move from a quasi-Friedmanian world to a Sumnerian world.

Without rules we live in Friedmanian world – with clear nominal targets we live live in Sumnerian world.

PS Today is a Sumnerian day – hints from both the Fed and the ECB about possible monetary tightening is leading to monetary policy tightening today. Just take a look at US stock markets…(Ok, Greek worries is also playing apart, but that is passive monetary tightening as dollar demand increases)

Most people do “national accounting economics” – including most Austrians

Yesterday, I did a presentation about  monetary explanations for the Great Depression (See my paper here) at a conference hosted by the Danish Libertas Society. The theme of the conference was Austrian economics so we got of to an interesting start when I started my presentation with a bashing of Austrian business cycle theory – particularly the Rothbardian version (you know that has given me a headache recently).

The debate at the conference reminded me that most people – economists and non-economists – have a rather simple keynesian model in their heads or rather a simple national account model in their head.

We all the know the basic national account identity:

(1) Y=C+I+G+X-M

It is notable that most people are not clear about whether Y is nominal or real GDP. In the standard keynesian textbook model it is of course not important as prices (P) are assumed to be fixed and equal to one.

The fact that most people see the macroeconomics in this rather standard keynesian formulation means that they fail to understand the nominal character of recessions and hence nearly by construction they are unable to comprehend that the present crisis is a result of monetary policy mistake.

Whether austrian, keynesian or lay-person the assumption is that something happened on the righthand side of (1) and that caused Y to drop. The Austrians claim that we had an unsustainable boom in investments (I) caused by too low interest rates and that that boom ended in a unavoidable drop I. The keynesians (of the more traditional style) on the other hand claim that private consumption (C) and investments (I) is driven by animal spirits –  both in the boom and the bust.

What both keynesians and austrians completely fail to realise is the importance of money. The starting point of macroeconomic analysis should not be (1), but rather the equation of exchange:

(2) MV=PY

I have earlier argued that when we teach economics we should start out we money-free and friction-free micro economy. Then we should add money, move to aggregated prices and quantities and price rigidities. That is what we call macroeconomics.

If we can make people understand that the starting point of macroeconomic analysis should be (2) and not (1) then we can also convince them that the present recession (as all other recessions) is caused by a monetary contraction rather than drop in C or I. The drop in C and I are consequences rather the reasons for the recessions.

In this regard it is also important to note that Austrian Business Cycle Theory as formulated by Hayek or Rothbard basically is keynesian in nature in the sense that it is not really monetary theory. The starting point is that interest rates impact the capital structure and investments and that impacts Y – first as a boom and then as a bust. This is also why it is hard to convince Austrians that the present crisis is caused by tight money. (You could also choose to see Austrian business cycle theory as a growth theory that explain secular swings in real GDP, but that is not a business cycle theory).

Austrians and keynesians disagree on the policy response to the crisis. The Austrians want “liquidation” and the keynesians want to use fiscal policy (G) to fill the hole left empty by the drop in C and I in (1). This might actually also explain why “Austrians” often resort to quasi-moralist arguments against monetary or fiscal easing. In the Austrian model it would actually “work” if fiscal or monetary policy was eased, but that is politically unacceptable so you need to come up with some other objection. Ok, that is maybe not fair, but that is at least the feeling you get when you listen to populist part of the “Austrian movement” which is popular especially among commentators and young libertarians around the world – the Ron Paul crowd so to speak.

If people understood that our starting point should be (2) rather than (1) then people would also get a much better understanding of the monetary transmission mechanism. It is not about changes in interest rates to change C or I or changes in the exchange rate to change net exports (X-M). (Note of course in (1) M means imports and in (2) M means money). If we focus on (2) rather than (1) we will understand that a devaluation impact nominal demand by changes in M or V – it is really not about “competitiveness” – its about money.

So what we really want is a textbook that starts out with Arrow–Debreu in microeconomics and then move on (2) and macroeconomics. Imagine if economics students were not introduce to the mostly irrelevant national account identity (1) before they had a good understand on the equation of exchange (2)? Then I am pretty sure that we would not have these endless discussions about fiscal policy and most economists would then readily acknowledge that recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

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PS I am of course aware this partly is a caricature of both the Austrian and the keynesian position. New Keynesians are more clever than just relying on (1), but nonetheless fails really to grasp the importance of money. And then some modern day Austrians like Steve Horwitz fully appreciate that we should start out with (2) rather than (1). However, I am not really sure that I would consider Steve’s macro model to be a Austrian model. There is a lot more Leland Yeager and Clark Warburton in Steve’s model than there is Rothbard or Hayek. That by the way is no critique, but rather why I generally like Steve’s take on the world.

PPS Take a Scott Sumner’s discussion of Bank of England’s inflation. You will see Scott is struggling with the BoE’s research departments lack of understanding nominal vs real. Basically at the BoE they also start out with (1) rather than (2) and that is a central bank! No surprise they get monetary policy wrong…

“The Great Recession: Market Failure or Government Failure?” BUY IT NOW!

Robert Hetzel’s new book “The Great Recession: Market Failure or Government Failure?” is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com (and Amazon.co.uk). Did you order it!? Needless to say I have ordered my version and hope it will arrive in my mailbox sometime around my birthday in early March!

Here is that official book description:

“Since publication of Robert L. Hetzel’s The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve (Cambridge University Press, 2008), the intellectual consensus that had characterized macroeconomics has disappeared. That consensus emphasized efficient markets, rational expectations, and the efficacy of the price system in assuring macroeconomic stability. The 2008-2009 recession not only destroyed the professional consensus about the kinds of models required to understand cyclical fluctuations but also revived the credit-cycle or asset-bubble explanations of recession that dominated thinking in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. These “market-disorder” views emphasize excessive risk taking in financial markets and the need for government regulation. The present book argues for the alternative “monetary-disorder” view of recessions. A review of cyclical instability over the last two centuries places the 2008-2009 recession in the monetary-disorder tradition, which focuses on the monetary instability created by central banks rather than on a boom-bust cycle in financial markets.”

I am very much looking forward to reading this book that I am pretty sure will have a very significant impact on the understanding of the causes of the Great Recession among economists and is likely to become a piece that economic historians will study in the future.

If you can’t wait then I recommend you to read Hetzel’s fantastic paper on the causes of the Great Recession: “Monetary Policy in the 2008–2009 Recession”

 

Boom, bust and bubbles

Recently it has gotten quite a bit of attention that some investors believe that there is a bubble in the Chinese property market and we will be heading for a bust soon and the fact that I recently visited Dubai have made me think of how to explain bubbles and if there is such a thing as bubbles in the first bubbles.

I must say I have some experience with bubbles. In 2006 I co-authoured a paper on the Icelandic economy where we forecasted a bust of the Icelandic bubble – I don’t think we called it a bubble, but it was pretty clear that that is what we meant it was. And in 2007 I co-authored a number of papers calling a bust to the bubbles in certain Central and Eastern European economies – most notably the Baltic economies. While I am proud to have gotten it right – both Iceland and the Baltic States went through major economic and financial crisis – I nonetheless still feel that I am not entire sure why I got it right. I am the first to admit that there certainly quite a bit of luck involved (never underestimate the importance of luck). Things could easily have gone much different. However, I do not doubt that the fact that monetary conditions were excessive loose played a key role both in the case of Iceland and in the Baltic States. I have since come to realise that moral hazard among investors undoubtedly played a key role in these bubbles. But most of all my conclusion is that the formation of bubbles is a complicated process where a number of factors play together to lead to bubbles. At the core of these “accidents”, however, is a chain of monetary policy mistakes.

What is bubbles? And do they really exist? 

If one follows the financial media one would nearly on a daily basis hear about “bubbles” in that and that market. Hence, financial journalists clearly have a tendency to see bubbles everywhere – and so do some economists especially those of us who work in the financial sector where “airtime” is important. However, the fact is that what really could be considered as bubbles are quite rare. The fact that all the bubble-thinkers can mention the South Sea bubble or the Dutch Tulip bubble of 1637 that happened hundreds years ago is a pretty good illustration of this. If bubbles really were this common then we would have hundreds of cases to study. We don’t have that. That to me this indicates that bubbles do not form easily – they are rare and form as a consequence of a complicated process of random events that play together in a complicated unpredictable process.

I think in general that it is wrong to see any increase in assets prices that is later corrected as a bubble. Obviously investors make mistakes. We after all live in an uncertain world. Mistakes are not bubbles. We can only talk about bubbles if most investors make the same mistakes at the same time.

Economists do not have a commonly accepted description of what a bubble is and this is probably again because bubbles are so relatively rare. But let me try to give a definitions. I my view bubbles are significant economic wide misallocation of labour and capital that last for a certain period and then is followed by an unwinding of this misallocation (we could also call this boom-bust). In that sense communist Soviet Union was a major bubble. That also illustrates that distortion of  relative prices is at the centre of the description and formation of bubbles.

Below I will try to sketch a monetary based theory of bubbles – and here the word sketch is important because I am not actually sure that there really can be formulated a theory of bubbles as they are “outliers” rather than the norm in free market economies.

The starting point – good things happen

In my view the starting point for the formation of bubbles actually is that something good happens. Most examples of “bubbles” (or quasi-bubbles) we can find with economic wide impact have been in Emerging Markets. A good example is the boom in the South East Asian economies in the early 1990s or the boom in Southern Europe and Central and Eastern European during the 2000s. All these economies saw significant structural reforms combined with some kind of monetary stabilisation, but also later on boom-bust.

Take for example Latvia that became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After independence Latvia underwent serious structural reforms and the transformation from planned economy to a free market economy happened relatively fast. This lead to a massively positive supply shock. Furthermore, a quasi-currency board was implemented early on. The positive supply shock (which played out over years) and the monetary stabilisation through the currency board regime brought inflation down and (initially) under control. So the starting point for what later became a massive misallocation of resources started out with a lot of good things happening.

Monetary policy and “relative inflation”

As the stabilisation and reform phase plays out the initial problems start to emerge. The problem is that the monetary policies that initially were stabilising soon becomes destabilising and here the distinction between “demand inflation” and “supply inflation” is key (See my discussion decomposion demand and supply inflation here). Often countries in Emerging Markets with underdeveloped financial markets will choose to fix their currency to more stable country’s currency – for example the US dollar or in the old days the D-mark – but a policy of inflation targeting has also in recent years been popular.

These policies often succeed in bringing nominal stability to begin with, but because the central bank directly or indirectly target headline inflation monetary policy is eased when positive supply shocks help curb inflationary pressures. What emerges is what Austrian economists has termed “relative inflation” – while headline inflation remains “under control” demand inflation (the inflation created by monetary policy) increases while supply inflation drops or even turn into supply deflation. This is a consequence of either a fixed exchange rate policy or an inflation targeting policy where headline inflation rather than demand inflation is targeted.

My view on relative inflation has to a very large extent been influenced by George Selgin’s work – see for example George’s excellent little book “Less than zero” for a discussion of relative inflation. I think, however, that I am slightly less concerned about the dangers of relative inflation than Selgin is and I would probably stress that relative inflation alone can not explain bubbles. It is a key ingredient in the formation of bubbles, but rarely the only ingredient.

Some – George Selgin for example (see here) – would argue that there was a significant rise in relatively inflation in the US prior to 2008. I am somewhat skeptical about this as I can not find it in my own decompostion of the inflation data and NGDP did not really increase above it’s 5-5.5% trend in the period just prior to 2008. However, a better candidate for rising relative inflation having played a role in the formation of a bubble in my view is the IT-bubble in the late 1990s that finally bursted in 2001, but I am even skeptical about this. For a good discussion of this see David Beckworth innovative Ph.D. dissertation from 2003.

There are, however, much more obvious candidates. While the I do not necessarily think US monetary policy was excessively loose in terms of the US economy it might have been too loose for everybody else and the dollar’s role as a international reserve currency might very well have exported loose monetary policy to other countries. That probably – combined with policy mistakes in Europe and easy Chinese monetary policy – lead to excessive loose monetary conditions globally which added to excessive risk taking globally (including in the US).

The Latvian bubble – an illustration of the dangers of relative inflation

I have already mentioned the cases of Iceland and the Baltic States. These examples are pretty clear examples of excessive easy monetary conditions leading to boom-bust. The graph below shows my decompostion of Latvian inflation based on a Quasi-Real Price Index for Latvia.

It is very clear from the graph that Latvia demand inflation starts to pick up significantly around 2004, but headline inflation is to some extent contained by the fact that supply deflation becomes more and more clear. It is no coincidence that this happens around 2004 as that was the year Latvia joined the EU and opened its markets further to foreign competition and investments – the positive impact on the economy is visible in the form of supply deflation. However, due to Latvia’s fixed exchange rate policy the positive supply shock did not lead to a stronger currency, but rather to an increase in demand inflation. This undoubtedly was a clear reason for the extreme misallocation of capital and labour in the Latvian economy in 2005-8.

The fact that headline inflation was kept down by a positive supply shock probably help “confuse” investors and policy makers alike and it was only when the positive supply shock started to ease off in 2006-7 that investors got alarmed.

Hence, here a Selginian explanation for the boom-bust seems to be a lot more obvious than for the US.

The role of Moral Hazard – policy makers as “cheerleaders of the boom”

To me it is pretty clear that relative inflation will have to be at the centre of a monetary theory of bubbles. However, I don’t think that relative inflation alone can explain bubbles like the one we saw in the Latvia. A very important reason for this is the fact that it took so relatively long for investors to acknowledge that something wrong in the Latvian economy. Why did they not recognise it earlier? I think that moral hazard played a role. Investors full well understood that there was a serious problem with strongly rising demand inflation and misallocation of capital and labour, but at the same time it was clear that Latvia seemed to be on the direct track to euro adoption within a relatively few years (yes, that was the clear expectation in 2005-6). As a result investors bet that if something would go wrong then Latvia would probably be bailed out by the EU and/or the Nordic governments and this is in fact what happened. Hence, investors with rational expectations rightly expected a bailout of Latvia if the worst-case scenario played out.
The Latvian case is certainly not unique. Robert Hetzel has made a forcefull argument in his excellent paper “Should Increased Regulation of Bank Risk Taking Come from Regulators or from the Market?” that moral hazard played a key role in the Asian crisis. Here is Hetzel:

“In early 1995, the Treasury with the Exchange Stabilization Fund, the Fed with swap accounts, and the IMF had bailed out international investors holding Mexican Tesobonos (Mexican government debt denominated in dollars) who were fleeing a Mexico rendered unstable by political turmoil. That bailout created the assumption that the United States would intervene to prevent financial collapse in its strategic allies. Russia was included as “too nuclear” to fail. Subsequently, large banks increased dramatically their short-term lending to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. The Asia crisis emerged when the overvalued, pegged exchange rates of these countries collapsed revealing an insolvent banking system. Because of the size of the insolvencies as a fraction of the affected countries GDP, the prevailing TBTF assumption that Asian countries would bail out their banking systems suddenly disappeared.”

I would further add that I think policy makers often act as “cheerleaders of the boom” in the sense that they would dismiss warnings from analysts and market participants that something is wrong in the economy and often they are being supported by international institutions like the IMF. This clearly “helps” investors (and households) becoming more rationally ignorant or even rationally irrational about the “obvious” risks (See Bryan Caplan’s discussion of rational ignorance and rational irrationality here.)

Policy recommendation: Introduce NGDP level targeting

Yes, yes we might as well get out our hammer and say that the best way to avoid bubbles is to target the NGDP level. So why is that? Well, as I argued above a key ingredient in the creation of bubbles was relative inflation – that demand inflation rose without headline inflation increasing. With NGDP level targeting the central bank will indirectly target a level for demand prices – what I have called a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This clearly would reduce the risk of misallocation due to confusion of demand and supply shocks.

It is often argued that central banks should in some way target asset prices to avoid bubbles. The major problem with this is that it assumes that the central bank can spot bubbles that market participants fail to spot. This is further ironic as it is exactly the central banks’ overly loose monetary policy which is likely at the core of the formation of bubbles. Further, if the central bank targets the NGDP level then the potential negative impact on money velocity of potential bubbles bursting will be counteracted by an increase in the money supply and hence any negative macroeconomic impact of the bubble bursting will be limited. Hence, it makes much more sense for central banks to significantly reduce the risk of bubbles by targeting the NGDP level than to trying to prick the bubbles.NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and also reduces the destabilising impact when the bubbles bursts.

Finally it goes without saying that moral hazard should be avoided, but here the solutions seems to be much harder to find and most likely involve fundamental institutional (some would argue constitutional) reforms.

But lets not worry too much about bubbles

As I stated above the bubbles are in reality rather rare and there is therefore in general no reason to worry too much about bubbles. That I think particularly is the case at the moment where overly tight monetary policy rather overly loose monetary policy. Furthermore, contrary to what some have argued the introduction – which effective in the present situation would equate monetary easing in for example the US or the euro zone – does not increase the risk of bubbles, but rather it reduces the risk of future bubbles significantly. That said, there is no doubt that the kind of bailouts that we have see of certain European governments and banks have increased the risk of moral hazard and that is certainly problematic. But again if monetary policy had follow a NGDP rule in the US and Europe the crisis would have been significantly smaller in the first place and bailouts would therefore not have been “necessary”.

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PS I started out mentioning the possible bursting of the Chinese property bubble. I have no plans to write on that topic at the moment, but have a look at two rather scary comments from Patrick Chovanec:

“China Data, Part 1A: More on Property Downturn”
“Foreign Affairs: China’s Real Estate Crash”

 

 



The Compensated dollar and monetary policy in small open economies

It is Christmas time and I am spending time with the family so it is really not the time for blogging, but just a little note about something I have on my mind – Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan and how it might be useful in today’s world – especially for small open economies.

I am really writing on a couple of other blog posts at the moment that I will return to in the coming days and weeks, but Irving Fisher is hard to let go of. First of all I need to finalise my small series on modern US monetary history through the lens of Quasi-Real Indexing and then I am working on a post on bubbles (that might in fact turn into a numbers of posts). So stay tuned for these posts.

Back to the Compensated dollar plan. I have always been rather skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes even though I acknowledge that they have worked well in some countries and at certain times. My dislike of fixed exchange rates originally led me to think that then one should advocate floating exchange rates and I certainly still think that a free floating exchange rate regime is much preferable to a fixed exchange rate regime for a country like the US. However, the present crisis have made me think twice about floating exchange rates – not because I think floating exchange rates have done any harm in this crisis. Countries like Sweden, Australia, Canada, Poland and Turkey have all benefitted a great deal from having floating exchange rates in this crisis. However, exchange rates are really the true price of money (or rather the relative price of monies). Unlike the interest rate which is certainly NOT – contrary to popular believe – the price of money. Therefore, if we want to change the price of money then the most direct way to do that is through the exchange rate.

As a consequence I also come to think that variations of Fisher’s proposal could be an idea for small open economies – especially as these countries typically have less developed financial markets and due to financial innovation – in especially Emerging Markets – have a hard time controlling the domestic money supply. Furthermore, a key advantage of using the exchange rate to conduct monetary policy is that there is no “lower zero bound” on the exchange rate as is the case with interest rates and the central bank can effectively “circumvent” the financial sector in the conduct of monetary policy – something which is likely to be an advantage when there is a financial crisis.

The Compensated dollar plan 

But lets first start out by revisiting Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. Irving Fisher first suggested the compensated dollar plan in 1911 in his book The Purchasing Power of Money. The idea is that the dollar (Fisher had a US perspective) should be fixed to the price of gold, but the price should be adjustable to ensure a stable level of purchasing power for the dollar (zero inflation). Fisher starts out by defining a price index (equal to what we today we call a consumer price index) at 100. Then Fisher defines the target for the central bank as 100 for this index – so if the index increases above 100 then monetary policy should be tightened – and vis-a-vis if the index drops. This is achieved by a proportional adjustment of  the US rate vis-a-vis the the gold prices. So it the consumer price index increase from 100 to 101 the central bank intervenes to strengthen the dollar by 1% against gold. Ideally – and in my view also most likely – this system will ensure stable consumer prices and likely provide significant nominal stability.

Irving Fisher campaigned unsuccessfully for his proposals for years and despite the fact that is was widely discussed it was not really given a chance anywhere. However, Sweden in the 1930s implemented a quasi-compensated dollar plan and as a result was able to stabilize Swedish consumer prices in the 1930s. This undoubtedly was the key reason why Sweden came so well through the Great Depression. I am very certain that had the US had a variation of the compensated dollar plan in place in 2008-9 then the crisis in the global economy wold have been much smaller.

Three reservations about the Compensated dollar plan

There is no doubt that the Compensated dollar plan fits well into Market Monetarist thinking. It uses market prices (the exchange rate and gold prices) in the conduct of monetary policy rather than a monetary aggregate, it is strictly ruled based and it ensures a strong nominal anchor.

From a Market Monetarists perspective I, however, have three reservations about the idea.

First, the plan is basically a price level targeting plan (with zero inflation) rather than a plan to target nominal spending/income (NGDP targeting). This is clearly preferable to inflation targeting, but nonetheless fails to differentiate between supply and demand inflation and as such still risk leading to misallocation and potential bubbles. This is especially relevant for Emerging Markets, which undergoes significant structural changes and therefore continuously is “hit” by a number of minor and larger supply shocks.

Second, the plan is based on a backward-looking target rather than on a forward-looking target – where is the price level today rather than where is the price level tomorrow? In stable times this is not a major problem, but in a time of shocks to the economy and the financial system this might become a problem. How big this problem is in reality is hard to say.

Finally third, the fact that the plan uses only one commodity price as an “anchor” might become a problem. As Robert Hall among other have argued it would be preferable to use a basket of commodities as an anchor instead and he has suggest the so-called ANCAP standard where the anchor is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood.

Exchange rate based NGDP targeting for small-open economies

If we take this reservations into account we get to a proposal for an exchange rate based NGDP target regime which I believe would be particularly suiting for small open economies and Emerging Markets. I have in an earlier post spelled out the proposal – so I am repeating myself here, but I think the idea is worth it.

My suggestion is that it the the small open economy (SOE) announces that it will peg a growth path for NGDP (or maybe for nominal wages as data might be faster available than NGDP data) of for example 5% a year and it sets the index at 100 at the day of the introduction of the new monetary regime. Instead of targeting the gold price it could choose to either to “peg” the currency against a basket of other currencies – for example the 3-4 main trading partners of the country – or against a basket of commodities (I would prefer the CRB index which is pretty closely correlated with global NGDP growth).

Thereafter the central bank should every month announce a monthly rate of depreciation/appreciation of the currency against the anchor for the coming 24-36 month in the same way as most central banks today announces interest rate decisions. The target of course would be to “hit” the NGDP target path within a certain period. The rule could be fully automatic or there could be allowed for some discretion within the overall framework. Instead of using historical NGDP the central bank naturally should use some forecast for NGDP (for example market consensus or the central bank’s own forecast).

It could be done, but will anybody dare?

Central bankers are conservative people and they don’t go around and change their monetary policy set-up on a daily basis. Nonetheless it might be time for central banks around the world to reconsider their current set-up as monetary policy far from having been successfully in recent years. I believe Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan is an excellent place to start and I have provided a (simple) proposal for how small-open economies might implement it.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard comments on Market Monetarism

The excellent British commentator Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Daily Telegraph has a comment on the Euro crisis. I am happy to say that Ambrose comments positively on Market Monetarism. Here is a part of Ambrose’s comments:

“A pioneering school of “market monetarists” – perhaps the most creative in the current policy fog – says the Fed should reflate the world through a different mechanism, preferably with the Bank of Japan and a coalition of the willing.

Their strategy is to target nominal GDP (NGDP) growth in the United States and other aligned powers, restoring it to pre-crisis trend levels. The idea comes from Irving Fisher’s “compensated dollar plan” in the 1930s.

The school is not Keynesian. They are inspired by interwar economists Ralph Hawtrey and Sweden’s Gustav Cassel, as well as monetarist guru Milton Friedman. “Anybody who has studied the Great Depression should find recent European events surreal. Day-by-day history repeats itself. It is tragic,” said Lars Christensen from Danske Bank, author of a book on Friedman.

“It is possible that a dramatic shift toward monetary stimulus could rescue the euro,” said Scott Sumner, a professor at Bentley University and the group’s eminence grise. Instead, EU authorities are repeating the errors of the Slump by obsessing over inflation when (forward-looking) deflation is already the greater threat.

“I used to think people were stupid back in the 1930s. Remember Hawtrey’s famous “Crying fire, fire, in Noah’s flood”? I used to wonder how people could have failed to see the real problem. I thought that progress in macroeconomic analysis made similar policy errors unlikely today. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We’re just as stupid,” he said.”

So Market Monetarism is now being noticed in the US and in the UK – I wonder when continental Europe will wake up.

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Update: Scott Sumner also comments on Ambrose here – and in he has a related post to the euro crisis here.

“Global Banking Glut and Loan Risk Premium”

David Levey has sent me a new paper by Princeton University economics professor Hyun Song Shin on “Global Banking Glut and Loan Risk Premium“. I have unfortunately not had the time to read the paper yet, but it looks quite interesting and I would like to share it with my readers.

Here is the abstract:

“European global banks intermediating US dollar funds are important in influencing credit conditions in the United States. US dollar-denominated assets of banks outside the US are comparable in size to the total assets of the US commercial bank sector, but the large gross cross-border positions are masked by the netting out of the gross assets and liabilities. As a consequence, current account imbalances do not reflect the influence of gross capital flows on US financial conditions. This paper pieces together evidence from a global flow of funds analysis, and develops a theoretical model linking global banks and US loan risk premiums. The culprit for the easy credit conditions in the United States up to 2007 may have been the “Global Banking Glut” rather than the “Global Savings Glut””

Overall, I think the global financial linkages are extremely important in understanding how the Great Recession has played out and Hyun Song Shin’s paper could help us understand these linkages. I am personally very interested in the impact of the European banking sector’s demand for dollar.

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PS While the European crisis continues relentlessly it is hard to find anything positive of cheer you up. However, my colleague Antero Atilla – who long ago has realised that I am obsessed with monetary policy suggested a more fun youtube link today…have a look – it is all about money!

PPS The European crisis, business traveling and a bad flu is likely to keep me a bit away from blogging in the coming days.

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