Monetary policy can’t fix all problems

You say that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Reading the Market Monetarist blogs including my own one could easing come to the conclusion that we are the “hammer boys” that scream at any problem out there “NGDP targeting will fix it!” However, nothing can be further from the truth.

Unlike keynesians Market Monetarists do think that monetary policy should be used to “solve” some problems with “market failure”. Rather we believe that monetary policy should avoid creating problems on it own. That is why we want central banks to follow a clearly defined policy rule and as we think recessions as well as bad inflation/deflation (primarily) are results of misguided monetary policies rather than of market failures we don’t think of monetary policy as a hammer.

Rather we believe in Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So monetary policy determines nominal variables – nominal spending/NGDP, nominal wages, the price level, exchange rates and inflation. We also clearly acknowledges that monetary policy can have real impact – in the short-run the Phillips curve is not vertical so monetary policy can push real GDP above the structural level of GDP and reduce unemployment temporarily. But the long-run Phillips curve certainly is vertical. However, unlike Keynesians we do not see a need to “play” this short-term trade off. It is correct that NGDP targeting probably also would be very helpful in a New Keynesian world, however, we are not starting our analysis at some “social welfare function” that needs to be maximized – there is not a Phillips curve trade off on which policy makers should choose some “optimal” combination of inflation and unemployment – as for example John Taylor basically claims. In that sense Market Monetarists certainly have much more faith in the power of the free market than John Talyor (and that might come to a surprise to conservative and libertarian critics of Market Monetarism…).

What we, however, do indeed argue is that if you commit mistakes you fix it yourself and that also goes for central banks. So if a central bank directly or indirectly (through it’s historical actions) has promised to deliver a certain nominal target then it better deliver and if it fails to do so it better correct the mistake as soon as possible. So when the Federal Reserve through its actions during the Great Moderation basically committed itself and “promised” to US households, corporations and institutions etc. that it would deliver 5% NGDP growth year in and year out and then suddenly failed to so in 2008/9 then it committed a policy mistake. It was not a market failure, but rather a failure of monetary policy. That failure the Fed obviously need to undo. So when Market Monetarists have called for the Fed to lift NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend then it is not some kind of vulgar-keynesian we-will-save-you-all policy, but rather it is about the undoing the mistakes of the past. Monetary policy is not about “stimulus”, but about ensuring a stable nominal framework in which economic agents can make their decisions.

Therefore we want monetary policy to be “neutral” and therefore also in a sense we want monetary policy to become invisible. Monetary policy should be conducted in such a way that investors and households make their investment and consumption decisions as if they lived in a Arrow-Debreu world or at least in a world free of monetary distortions. That also means that the purpose of monetary policy is NOT save investors and other that have made the wrong decisions. Monetary policy is and should not be some bail out mechanism.

Furthermore, central banks should not act as lenders-of-last-resort for governments. Governments should fund its deficits in the free markets and if that is not possible then the governments will have to tighten fiscal policy. That should be very clear. However, monetary policy should not be used as a political hammer by central banks to force governments to implement “reforms”. Monetary policy should be neutral – also in regard to the political decision process. Central banks should not solve budget problems, but central banks should not create fiscal pressures by allowing NGDP to drop significantly below the target level. It seems like certain central banks have a hard time separating this two issues.

Monetary policy should not be used to puncture bubbles either. However, some us – for example David Beckworth and myself – do believe that overly easy monetary policy under some circumstances can create bubbles, but here it is again about avoiding creating problems rather about solving problems. Hence, if the central bank just targets a growth path for the NGDP level then the risk of bubbles are greatly reduced and should they anyway emerge then it should not be task of monetary policy to solve that problem.

Monetary policy can not increase productivity in the economy. Of course productivity growth is likely to be higher in an economy with monetary stability and a high degree of predictability than in an economy with an erratic conduct of monetary policy. But other than securing a “neutral” monetary policy the central bank can not and should not do anything else to enhance the general level of wealth and welfare.

So monetary policy and NGDP level targeting are not some hammers to use to solve all kind of actual and perceived problems, but  who really needs a hammer when you got Chuck Norris?

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Marcus Nunes has a related comment, but from a different perspective.

Dubai, Iceland, Baltics – can David Eagle explain the bubbles?

It’s Sunday night in Copenhagen and I have just returned from a trip to Dubai. I should really write a long post about Dubai, but I will keep it short.

Dubai really reminded me of Iceland – in the sense that both places should NOT really have seen the bubbles we saw. Both Dubai and Iceland had a property market boom, but one can hardly say that there is any serious supply constrains in either Dubai or Iceland. Both Dubai and Iceland seem simply to be “unreal” – or at least that was the case in the boom years.

To me it is pretty clear that we had a bubble in both places and the bubbles have now busted. But why did we have bubbles in Iceland and Dubai? Well, the easy answer is easy money, but I think that that explanation is too simple. And was it local monetary policy or was it US monetary policy that was too easy?

Fundamentally I think that moral hazard played a large role in both Iceland and Dubai – and guess what, both Iceland and Dubai have been bailed out by better off cousins – in the case of Iceland primarily by the other Nordic governments and in the case of Dubai by the big bother in the UEA – Abu Dhabi. But then why did we not have bubbles in other places where the risk of moral hazard was equally big? Again I like to stress that one should never underestimate the importance of luck or the opposite and this is probably also the explanation this time around.

However, Dubai made me think that Market Monetarists really need to take the issues of it bubbles serious. Market Monetarists disagree on this issue. Scott Sumner tends downplay the risk of bubbles – or rather that monetary policy cannot do much to avoid bubbles (other than target NGDP). David Beckworth on the other hand has done interesting work with George Selgin on why overly loose monetary policy might lead to misallocation. My own position is that I used to think that it mostly was easy monetary policy that was to blame and that is what led me – in my day-job – to warn against boom-bust in Iceland and Central and Eastern Europe in 2006-7. I have since come to think that moral hazard also play a role in this, but I am now returning to the monetary issue. However, while I think overly easy monetary policy led to misallocation in Iceland and Dubai and I am not really sure that that is the case in the US as NGDP never really increased above it’s Great Moderation trend prior to the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008. That might, however, be due to measurement problems and other measures nominal spending seem to indicate that monetary policy indeed was too loose prior to 2008.

So what kind of model can explain the kind of bubbles we saw in for example the Baltic economies in 2004-8? And here I return to David Eagle – an economist whose work has not been fully appreciated, but I have been trying to change that recently.

David’s starting point is an Arrow-Debreu (A-D) model in which he analyse the impact of changes in nominal spending on the economy and on allocation. Furthermore, David uses his model(s) to analyse how different monetary policy rules – NGDP targeting, Price level targeting and inflation targeting – influence allocation (including lending).

David mostly has used his theoretical set-up to look at the impact of negative shocks to NGDP, but my thesis is that David’s model set-up might be useful in analysing what went wrong in Iceland and Dubai – and In Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Europe for that matter. It should be noted that NGDP outgrew its prior trends in the “boom” years – contrary to the situation in the US.

I have not looked at this formally, but here is the idea. We have an A-D model, we introduce sticky prices and wages and a central bank with an inflation target (as Iceland have). Most of the economies that have had boom-bust have seen some kind of structural reforms that have led to positive supply shocks – for example banking reform in Iceland and a general opening of the economies in Central and Eastern Europe – or believe it or not euro membership for countries like Spain and Greece.

What happens in Eagle’s set-up? I have not done the math, but here is my intuition. A positive supply put downward pressure on prices and with the central bank targeting inflation the central bank will ease monetary policy – as inflation is inching down. In Eagle’s model this will lead an (in-optimal?) increase in lending. This increase in lending will last as long as the positive supply shocks continues. However, once the shocks come to an end then the process is reversed – and this is when the “bubble” burst (yes, yes this is somewhat beyond that scope of David’s model, but bare with me…). This by the way is very similar to what George Selgin and David Beckworth have suggested for the US economy, but I think this discussion is much more relevant for Dubai, Iceland and the Baltic States (or the the PIIGS for that matter) than for the US.

Again, I have not gone through this formally with David Eagle’s model set-up, but I think it could be a useful starting point to get a better understanding of the boom-bust in Iceland, Dubai and other places. That said I want also to stress the extent of the present global crisis is not a result of bubbles bursting (that might however been the crisis started), but rather too tight monetary policy is to blame for the crisis. David Eagle’s framework can also easily explain this.

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PS I should really write something about the euro crisis, but lets just remind people that I think that we are in 1931. By the way the UK left the gold standard in 1931 and the Scandinavian countries followed the lead from the UK. Germany, France, Austria and other continental European countries stayed on the gold standard. We all remember how that story ended. Oddly enough the monetary faultline is more or less the same this time around. Why should we expect a different outcome this time around?

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