Advertisements
Advertisements

“Make America Keynesian Again”

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

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

Reading the markets

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

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

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

The Republican Keynesians

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

image004

image003.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and on the budget deficit:

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

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

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

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

image002

Keynesian president + Keynesian Fed chair = No monetary offset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image001-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 – a year of inflation?

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

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

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

Update: Read my follow-up post here.

Advertisements

A scary story: The Zero Lower Bound and exchange rate dynamics

I was in Sweden last week and again yesterday (today I am in Norway). My trips to Sweden have once again reminded me about the dangers of conducting monetary policy with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). The Swedish central bank – Riksbanken – has cut is key policy rate to 1% and is like to cut it further to 0.75% before the end of the year so we are inching closer and closer to zero.

Riksbanken is just one of a number of European central banks close to zero on interest rates – most notably the ECB is at 0.25%. In the Czech Republic the key policy rate stands at 0.05%. And even Poland, Hungary, Norway are moving closer and closer to the ZLB.

Most of these central banks seem to be quite unprepared for what might happen at the Zero Lower Bound. In this post I will particularly focus on the exchange rate dynamics at the ZLB.

A Taylor rule world

Lets say we can describe monetary policy with a simple Taylor rule:

r = rN+a*(p-pT)+b(ygap)

In a “normal” world where everything is fine and the key policy rate (r) is well-above zero the central bank will hike or cut r in response to increasing or declining inflation (p) relative to the inflation target (pT) or in response to the output gap (ygap) increasing or decreasing. If the output gap is closed and inflation is at the inflation target then the central bank will set it’s key policy rate at the “natural” interest rate rN.

What happens at the ZLB?

However, lets assume that we are no longer in a normal world. Lets instead assume that p is well below the inflation target and the output gap is negative. As we know this is the case in most European countries today.

So if we plug these numbers into our Taylor rule above we might get r=1%. As long as r>0 we are not in trouble yet. The central bank can still conduct monetary policy with its chosen instrument – the key policy interest rate. This is how most inflation targeting central banks in the world are doing their business today.

But what happens if we get a negative shock to the economy. Lets for example assume that an overheated property markets starts to cool gradually and real GDP starts to slow. In this case the central bank according to it’s Taylor rule should cut its key policy rate further. Sooner or later the central bank hits the ZLB.

An then suddenly the currency starts strengthening dramatically

In fact imagine that the interest rate level needed to close the output gap and keep inflation at the inflation target is -2%.

We can say that monetary policy is neutral when the central bank sets interest rates according to the Taylor rule, but if interest rates are higher than the what the Taylor rule stipulates then monetary policy is tight. So if the Taylor rule tells us that the key policy rate should be -2% and the actual policy rate is zero then monetary policy is of course tight. This is what many central bankers fail to understand. Monetary policy is not necessarily easy just because the interest rate is low in a historical or absolute perspective.

And this is where it gets really, really dangerous because we now risk getting into a very unstable economic and financial situation – particularly if the central bank insists that monetary policy is already easy, while it is in fact tight.

What happens to the exchange rate in a situation where monetary policy is tightened? It of course appreciates. So when the “stipulated” (by the Taylor rule) interest rate drops to for example -2% and the actual interest rate is at 0% then obviously the currency starts to appreciates – leading to a further tightening of monetary conditions. With monetary conditions tightening inflation drops further and growth plummets. So now we might need an interest rate of -4 or -7%.

With that kind of monetary tightening you will fast get financial distress. Stock markets start to drop dramatically as inflation expectations plummets and the economy contracts. It is only a matter of time before the talk of banking troubles start to emerge.

The situation becomes particularly dangerous if the central bank maintains that monetary policy is easy and also claim that the appreciation of the currency is a signal that everything is just fine, but it is of course not fine. In fact the economy is heading for a massive collapse if the central bank does not change course.

This scenario is of course very similar to what played out in the US in 2008-9. A slowdown in the US property market caused a slowdown in the US economy. The Fed failed to respond by not cutting interest rates aggressive and fast enough and as a consequence we soon hit the ZLB. And what happened to the dollar? It strengthened dramatically! That of course was a very clear indication that monetary conditions were becoming very tight. Initially the Fed clearly failed to understand this – with disastrous consequences.

But don’t worry – there is a way out

The US is of course special as the dollar is a global reserve currency. However, I am pretty sure that if a similar thing plays out in other countries in the world we will see a similar exchange rate dynamics. So if the Taylor rule tells you that the key policy rate should be for example -4% and it is stuck at zero then the the currency will start strengthening dramatically and inflation and growth expectations will plummet potentially setting off financial crisis.

However, there is no reason to repeat the Fed’s failure of 2008. In fact it is extremely easy to avoid such a scenario. The central bank just needs to acknowledge that it can always ease monetary policy at the ZLB. First of all it can conduct normal open market operations buying assets and printing its own currency. That is what we these days call Quantitative Easing.

For small open economies there is an even simpler way out. The central bank can simply intervene directly in the currency market to weak its currency and remember the market can never beat the central bank in this game. The central bank has the full control of the printing press.

So imagine we now hit the ZLB and we would need to ease monetary policy further. The central bank could simply announce that it will weaken its currency by X% per months until the output gap is close and inflation hits the inflation target. It is extremely simple. This is what Lars E.O. Svensson – the former deputy central bank governor in Sweden – has termed the foolproof way out of deflation.

And even better any central bank, which is getting dangerously close to the ZLB should pre-announce that it will in fact undertake such Svenssonian monetary operations to avoid the dangerous of conducting monetary policy at the ZLB. That would mean that as the economy is moving closer to the ZLB the currency would automatically start to weaken – ahead of the central bank doing anything – and in that sense the risk of hitting the ZLB would be much reduced.

Some central bankers understand this. For example Czech central bank governor Miroslav Singer who recently has put a floor under EUR/CZK, but unfortunately many other central bankers in Europe are dangerously ignorant about these issues.

PS I told the story above using a relatively New Keynesian framework of a Taylor rule, but this is as much a Market Monetarist story about understanding expectations and that the interest rate level is a very bad indicator of the monetary policy stance.

%d bloggers like this: