Oil prices, inflation and the FT’s good advice for central bankers

This is from the Financial Times’ FT View:

Pity the analyst forecasting today’s global economy. For every signal warning of stagnation there is another glowing green for go. But through this blur of clashing indicators it is possible to discern some consistent themes.

The clearest is weak inflation. The main cause is oversupply in the oil market where prices have fallen by one-third since the summer. With other commodities from cotton and hogs to wheat and soybeans similarly cheap, countries that rely on imported food and fuel have had a welcome boost.

American consumers in particular benefit from cheap fuel, which helps to explain growing momentum in the US economy. Strong jobs numbers on Friday confirmed a growing recovery. These bullish spirits are mirrored on Wall Street where the stock market has rebounded by 10 per cent since the turmoil of October.

But any student of the Great Depression would caution against seeing disinflationary forces in a purely positive light. In Japan and Europe, the persistent downwards trend in inflation is also a reflection of weak incomes. If left unchecked, this threatens to entrench a low-spending, deflationary mindset. Outside of a big slowdown, wage growth in much of the developed world has never been weaker. Even the most ambitious monetary policy can be undermined if pay packets are not growing. Instead of being spent, cash accumulates on the balance sheets of businesses unwilling to invest…

…Monetary policy provides the best key to understanding the variegated global picture. The central banks of the US, UK and Japan all adopted easier policies and were rewarded with an upturn. Given weak wage growth and a lack of fiscal support, such stimulus ought to continue.

Europe is an unhappy exception. Despite German misgivings, low interest rates are no evidence that money is too loose: nominal GDP growth stutters along at less than 3 per cent, a clear sign that the stance is much too tight. In recent years the ECB twice made the mistake of raising rates too soon, and thereby punished Europe with a deeper recession and a worse fiscal crisis. If its president Mario Draghi cannot ease policy further, the consequences will be just as serious.

The welcome boost provided by cheaper oil may help the global economy accelerate over the next year. Even Europe could participate, if only its policy makers would stop confusing the brake with the accelerator.

Do I need to say I agree with 99% of this? Yes, lower oil prices is mostly good news to the extent it reflects a positive supply shock in the oil market and yes if that was the only reason we are seeing deflation spreading then we should not worry.

However, take a look at any indicator of monetary condtions in the euro zone – the collapse in the money base since 2012, meager M3 growth, no NGDP growth, higher real interest rates, a stronger euro (since 2012) and sharply lower inflation expectations – and you should soon realise that the real deflation story in the euro zone is excessively tight monetary policy and the ECB need to do something about that whether oil trades at 40 or 140 dollars/barrel.

PS I don’t think the same story goes for the US. The recent drop in US inflation does not on its own warrant monetary easing. The Fed just needs to keep focused on expected NGDP growth and there is no signs of NGDP growth slowing in the US so I don’t think monetary policy is called for in the US.

PPS For some countries – oil-exporters with pegged exchange rates – lower oil prices is in fact monetary tightening – see here.


Bloomberg repeats the bond yield fallacy (Milton Friedman is spinning in his grave)

This is from Bloomberg:

A series of unprecedented stimulus measures by the ECB to stave off deflation in the 18-nation currency bloc have sent bond yields to record lows and pushed stock valuations higher. “

Unprecedented stimulus measures? Say what? Since ECB chief Mario Draghi promised to save the euro at any cost in 2012 monetary policy has been tightened and not eased.

Take any measure you can think of – the money base have dropped 30-40%, there is basically no growth in M3, the same can be said for nominal GDP growth, we soon will have deflation in most euro zone countries, the euro is 10-15% stronger in effective terms, inflation expectations have dropped to all time lows (in the period of the euro) and real interest rates are significantly higher.

That is not monetary easing – it is significant monetary tightening and this is exactly what the European bond market is telling us. Bond yields are low because monetary policy is tight (and growth and inflation expectations therefore are very low) not because it is easy – Milton Friedman taught us that long ago. Too bad so few economists – and even fewer economic reporters – understand this simple fact.

If you think that bond yields are low because of monetary easing why is it that US bond yields are higher than in the euro zone? Has the Fed done less easing than the ECB?

The bond yield fallacy unfortunately is widespread not only among Bloomberg reporter, but also among European policy makers. But let me say it again – European monetary policy is extremely tight – it is not easy and I would hope that financial reporter would report that rather than continuing to report fallacies.

HT Petar Sisko

PS If you want to use nominal interest rates as a measure of monetary policy tightness then you at least should compare it to a policy rule like the Taylor rule or any other measure of the a neutral nominal interest rate. I am not sure what the Talyor rule would say about level of nominal interest rates we should have in Europe, but -3-4% would probably be a good guess. So interest rates are probably 300-400bp too higher in the euro zone. That is insanely tight monetary policy.

PPS I am writing this without consulting the data so everything is from the top of my head. And now I really need to take care of the kids…sorry for the typos.

One step closer to euro zone deflation

This is from CNBC:

Euro zone consumer inflation came in lower than expected in December, adding to concerns that the euro zone could be heading towards a period of deflation.

Consumer prices rose by 0.8 percent year-on-year in December, below the 0.9 percent expected by economists. It comes after inflation increased by 0.9 percent in November.

Day by day it is becoming more and more clear that the euro zone is heading for deflation and despite of this the ECB so far has failed to act and it is blatantly obvious that the ECB is in breach of its own mandate to secure “price stability” defined as 2% inflation.

The failure to act is also a clear demonstration that the ECB in fact has an asymmetrical monetary policy rule (what I have called the Weidmann rule). The ECB will tighten monetary policy when inflation increases, but will not ease when inflation drops.


The “Weidmann rule” and the asymmetrical budget multiplier (is the euro zone 50% keynesian?)

During Christmas and New Years I have been able to (nearly) not think about monetary policy and economics, but I nonetheless came across some comments from Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann from last week, which made me think about the connection between monetary policy rules and fiscal austerity in the euro zone. I will try address these issues in this post.  

This is Jens Weidmann:

“The euro zone is recovering only gradually from the harshest economic crisis in the post-war period and there are few price risks. This justifies the low interest rate…Low price pressure however cannot be a licence for arbitrary monetary easing and we must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount.”

It is the second part of the quote, which is interesting. Here Weidmann basically spells out his preferred reaction function for the ECB and what he is saying is that he bascially wants an asymmetrical monetary policy rule – when inflation drops below the ECB’s 2% inflation target the ECB should not “arbitrary” cut its key policy rate, but when inflation pressures increase he wants the ECB to act imitiately.

It is not given that the ECB actually has such a policy rule, but given the enormous influence of the Bundesbank on ECB policy making it is probably reasonable to assume that that is the case. That in my view would mean that Summer Critique does not apply (fully) to the euro zone and as a result we can think of the euro zone as being at least 50% “keynesian” in the sense that fiscal shocks will not be fully offset by monetary policy. As a result it would be wrong to assume that the budget multiplier is zero in the euro zone – or rather it is not always zero. The budget multiplier is asymmetrical.

Let me try to illustrate this within a simple AS/AD framework.

First we start out with a symmetrical policy rule – an inflation targeting ECB. Our starting point is a situation where inflation is at 2% – the ECB’s official inflation target – and the ECB will move to offset any shock (positive and negative) to aggregate demand to keep inflation (expectations) at 2%. The graph below illustrates this.

ASAD AD shock

If the euro zone economy is hit by a negative demand shock in the form of for example fiscal tightening across the currency union the AD curve inititally shifts to the left (from AD to AD’). This will push inflation below the ECB’s 2% inflation target. As this happens the ECB will automatically move to offset this shock by easing monetary policy. This will shift the AD curve back (from AD’ to AD). With a credible monetary policy rule the markets would probably do most of the lifting.

The Weidmann rule – asymmetry rules

However, the Weidmann rule as formulated above is not symmetrical. In Weidmann’s world a negative shock to aggregate demand – for example fiscal tightening – will not automatically be offset by monetary policy. Hence, in the graph above the negative shock aggregate demand (from AD to AD’) will just lead to a drop in real GDP growth and in inflation to below 2%. Given the ECB’s official 2% would imply the ECB should move to offset the negative AD shock, but that is not the case under the Weidmann rule. Hence, under the Weidmann rule a tightening of fiscal policy will lead to drop in aggregate demand. This means that the fiscal multiplier is positive, but only when the fiscal shock is negative.

This means that the Sumner Critique does not hold under the Weidman rule. Fiscal consolidation will indeed have a negative impact on aggregate demand (nominal spending). In that sense the keynesians are right – fiscal consolidation in the euro zone has likely had an negative impact on euro zone growth if the ECB consistently has followed a Weidmann rule. Whether that is the case or not is ultimately an empirical question, but I must admit that I increasingly think that that is the case. The austerity drive in the euro zone has likely been deflationary. However, it is important to note that this is only so because of the conduct of monetary policy in the euro area. Had the ECB instead had an fed style Evans rule with a symmetrical policy rule then the Sumner Critique would have applied also for the euro area.

The fact that the budget multiplier is positive could be seen as an argument against fiscal austerity in the euro zone. However, interestingly enough it is not an argument for fiscal stimulus.  Hence, according to Jens Weidmann the ECB “must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount”. Said in another way if the AD curve shifts to the right – increasing inflation and real GDP growth then the ECB should offset this with higher interest rates even when inflation is below the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

This means that there is full monetary offset if fiscal policy is eased. Therefore the Sumner Critique applies under fiscal easing and the budget multiplier is zero.

The Weidmann rule guarantees deflation 

Concluding, with the Weidmann rule fiscal tightening will be deflationary – inflation will drop as will real GDP growth. But fiscal stimulus will not increase aggregate demand. The result of this is that if we assume the shocks to aggregate demand are equally distributed between positive and negative demand shocks the consequence will be that we over time will see the difference between nominal GDP in the US and the euro become larger and larger exactly because the fed has a symmetrical monetary policy rule (the Evans rule), while the ECB has a asymmetrical monetary policy rule (the Weidmann rule).

This is of course exactly what we have seen over the past five years. But don’t blame fiscal austerity – blame the Weidmann rule.

NGDP euro zone USA

PS I should really acknowledge that this is a variation over a theme stressed by Larry Summers and Brad Delong in their paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy. See my discussion of that paper here.

European horror graph of the day – the Greek price level collapse

It has been said that the recent decline in European inflation to a large extent is due to a positive supply shock. This is to some extent correct and it is something I have acknowledged on a number of occassions. However, the main deflationary problem comes from the demand side of the European economy and the fact that monetary policy remains extremely tight in the euro zone is the main cause of the deflationary pressures in the European economy. A simple (but incomplete) way to strip out supply side effects from the price level is to look at the GDP deflator. This is what I here have done for Greece. This is the horror graph of the day – it is the level of the Greek GDP deflator relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-7).


I challenge my readers to find ANY example from history where such a collapse in the price level has ended in anything else than tears. PS note that there are no signs of inflationary pressures in the Greek economy escalating prior to the crisis. This is not about imbalances, but about a negative monetary policy shock.

HAWKISH Market Monetarists

Over the past five years Market Monetarists have gotten a reputation for always being dovish in terms of monetary policy. The Market Monetarists have day-in and day-out been pushing for monetary easing in the US, the UK and the euro zone. So our reputation is correct in the sense that we – the Market Monetarists – in general have favoured a more dovish monetary stance both in the US and in Europe than has been implemented by central banks.

However, one might notice that the Market Monetarist bloggers have been surprisingly calm in recent months despite the sharp decline in inflation we have see in particularly Europe. Overall, we have obviously maintained that monetary policy in the euro zone is far too tight and that we are heading for deflation as a result of this. But the primary cause of the sharp decline in headline inflation in the euro zone has been lower commodity prices and to some extent also a result of an “austerity pause” (no indirect tax hikes).

Hence, Market Monetarists do not think a decline in inflation due a positive supply shock in itself should trigger interest rate cuts (or other forms of monetary policy easing). Remember Market Monetarists favour nominal GDP targeting and a supply shock will not impact nominal GDP – only composition of nominal GDP growth between inflation and real GDP growth.

As a result Market Monetarists actually tend to be somewhat less alarmed by the recent inflation decline in the euro zone than for example the ECB and in that sense you can argue that the Market Monetarists actually are more “hawkish” than the ECB presently is when it comes to the need for monetary easing in response to the recent decline in euro zone inflation. When Market Monetarists are calling for monetary easing in the euro zone it is hence for a somewhat different reason than the ECB.

Monetary policy remains overly tight in the euro zone and we are likely heading for deflation – even disregarding the recent supply side driven drop in inflation – and that is why we – the Market Monetarists are advocating monetary easing in the euro zone. Just a look at the dismail growth of nominal GDP in the euro zone – there is no better indication than that of the ECB’s failure to ease monetary policy appropriately. So we shouldn’t be too sad if the ECB moves to ease monetary policy – even if Market Monetarists think it is for the wrong reasons.

In 3-5 years the Market Monetarists will be among the biggest hawks

If we are lucky we continue to see supply side conditions improve both in the US and the euro zone in the coming years. I am personally particular optimistic about the outlook for the US economy, where I do expect a number of factors to give a welcomed lift to US potential growth. The end of the so-called commodity super cycle and fracking might hopefully to reduce oil prices. This is a positive supply shock to the US economy.

Furthermore, as I am optimistic that the US is in the process of ending two wars – the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. I will return to that issue in a later blog post, but I overall think that this is the direction we are moving in and that will be tremendously positive for the US labour supply (and public finances for that matter).

Finally, as the US economy continues to improve the present anti-immigration sentiment in the US will hopefully be reversed – after all Americans are more happy to welcome Mexicans to join the labour force when the economy is doing good rather than bad.

Add to that that US unemployment is still high so there is really no labour market constrains to growth at the moment in the US. So overall, I think we with a bit of luck could be in for a couple of years of fairly high real GDP growth driven by positive supply side factors. In such a scenario we could easily have 4% or even 5% real GDP growth for some years without any substantial pick-up in inflation. This would be very similar to mid-1990s.

Such a scenario would likely in 3-5 years time turn the Market Monetarist bloggers into proponents of Fed tightening – before most other economists would favour it. This would particularly be the case if the Fed overdo it on monetary easing in a scenario where positive supply side factors keep inflation low and hence we see a sharp pick-up in nominal GDP growth. This would of course be what Austrians call relative inflation.

So no, Market Monetarists are not always dovish. We advocate clear monetary policy rules and these rules sometimes leads us to advocate a dovish stance on monetary (as presently), but also to a hawkish stance if needed. For now I have no big fears that US monetary policy is becoming too easy, but if I am right about my “supply side optimism” then a Fed too focused on headline inflation might overdo it on the easy side down the road.

There is of course only one way to avoid such a monetary policy mistake – spell out a clear NGDP level targeting rule today.


PS The ECB today did NOTHING to avoid deflation in the euro zone. No comments on that other than the ECB missed yet another opportunity to do the right thing.

PPS My best guess is that Scott Sumner will be a ultra hawk on US monetary policy in 2018-9.

Good and bad deflation – and horribly low euro zone M3 growth

I had an up-ed in today’s edition of the Danish Business daily Børsen. Here is the English translation:

Recently inflation has fallen sharply in most European countries and in some countries we already have deflation, and it is very likely that deflation will spread to several European countries in the near future.

In Sweden inflation has already fallen below zero , as is the case in several southern European countries.

There is certainly reason to fear deflation. In the 1930s deflation was allowed to spiral out of control and the consequences were disastrous. But in this context it is extremely important to remember that there are good and bad deflation.

The overall price level in the economy may fall for two reasons. First, productivity increases may cause prices to fall. As will falling input prices – for example lower oil prices. Second, a general contraction in aggregate demand – for example due to tighter monetary policy – can reduce the price level.

Economists normally call productivity increases and falling oil positive supply shock. They are unilaterally positive as an positive supply shock overall increases prosperity. That’s the good deflation.

Conversely a general decline in prices, which is a result of weak aggregate demand – a negative demand shock – is purely negative as it usually leads to higher unemployment and lower capacity utilization in the economy. That’s the bad deflation.

In general the economic development in Europe in the last five years has been characterized by very weak demand development. It has created ​​clear deflationary trends in several European economies. That certainly has not been good. It has been a bad deflation.

However, the recent decline in European inflation we have seen is primarily a result of falling oil prices – that is a good deflation, which in shouldn’t be a worry. The paradox is that these recent (positive) deflationary trends in the European economy seems to have caused the European Central Bank to wake up and reduce interest rates and it is now being speculated that the ECB will undertake further action to ease monetary policy.

According to the monetary policy textbook central banks should not respond to “good deflation”. This obviously could give reason to question the fact that the ECB is now finally moving to ease monetary policy. But the truth is that the ECB in the past five years have failed to sufficiently aggressively ease monetary policy to to avoid bad deflation.

Therefore, one can rightly say that the ECB is doing the right thing by easing monetary policy, but basically for the wrong reasons. But let’s just be happy that the ECB finally makes the right decision – to ease monetary policy – even if it is not for the right reasons.

The big question is now how the ECB will ease monetary policy when interest rates are already close to zero. But this “problem” is easily solved. A central bank can always ease monetary policy – even when the interest rate is zero. The Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan have solved this problem. They have simply increases the monetary base. The ECB has so far been very reluctant to move in this direction, but the fact that we are now moving toward deflation in the euro zone may also cause the ECB to move forward in this field. Let’s hope so – because if the ECB does not move in this direction we’re going to have ongoing problems with deflation – bad deflation – in Europe very soon.

Today we got more data underlining the fact that the ECB should be seriously worried about bad deflation. Hence, euro zone M3 grew by only 1.4% in October. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has an excellent comment on the horrible M3 numbers:

Eurozone money supply growth plummeted in October and loans to firms contracted at a record rate, heightening the risk of a stalled recovery and Japanese-style deflation next year.

The European Central Bank said M3 money growth fell to 1.4pc from a year earlier, lower than expected and far below the bank’s own 4.5pc target deemed necessary to keep the economy on an even keel.

Monetarists watch the M3 data — covering cash and a broad range of bank accounts — as an early warning signal for the economy a year or so in advance. “This a large dark cloud hanging over the eurozone in 2014; it means the public debt ratios in Southern Europe are at greater risk of exploding,” said Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research.


Ambrose also quotes me:

“The ECB needs to cut rates to zero and launch quantitative easing (QE) to head off deflation, but they are not there yet,” said Lars Christensen from Danske Bank. “The debt problem in Italy will be much worse if they let nominal GDP fall, leading to yet more austerity.”

So yes, we are seeing some good deflation in the euro zone at the moment and we should be happy about, but unfortunately we are likely to see a lot more bad deflation soon if the ECB does not get its act together soon.

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.

Deflation – not hyperinflation – brought Hitler to power

This Matt O’Brien in The Atlantic:

“Everybody knows you can draw a straight line from its hyperinflation to Hitler, but, in this case, what everybody knows is wrong. The Nazis didn’t take power when prices were doubling every 4 days in 1923– they tried, and failed — but rather when prices were falling in 1933.”

Matt is of course right – unfortunately few European policy makers seem to have studied any economic and political history. Furthermore, few advocates of free market Capitalism today realise that the biggest threat to the capitalist system is not overly easy monetary policy. The biggest threat to free market Capitalism is overly tight monetary policy as it brings reactionary and populist forces – whether red or brown – to power.

Update: This is from the German magazine Spiegel:

From 1922-1923, hyperinflation plagued Germany and helped fuel the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler.”

…I guess somebody in the German media needs a lesson in German history.

HT Petar Sisko.

PS Scott Sumner has a new blog post on how wrong many free market proponents are about monetary issues.

PPS take a look at this news story from the deflationary euro zone.

Tick tock…here comes the Zero Lower Bound again

This week have brought even more confirmation that we are still basically in a deflationary world – particularly in Europe. Hence, inflation numbers for October in a number of European countries published this week confirm that that inflation is declining markedly and that we now very close to outright deflation in a number of countries. Just take the case of the Czech Republic where the so-called monetary policy relevant inflation dropped to 0.1% y/y in October or even worse Sweden where we now have outright deflation – Swedish consumer prices dropped by 0.1% in October compared to a year ago.

And the picture is the same everywhere – even a country like Hungary where inflation notoriously has been above the central bank’s 3% inflation target inflation is now inching dangerously close to zero.

Some might say that there is no reason to worry because the recent drop in inflation is largely driven by supply side factors. I would agree that we shouldn’t really worry about deflation or disinflation if it is driven by a positive supply shocks and central banks would not react to such shocks if they where targeting nominal GDP rather than headline consumer price inflation. In fact I think that we are presently seeing a rather large positive supply shock to the global economy and in that sense the recent drop in inflation is mostly positive. However, the fact is that the underlying trend in European prices is hugely deflationary even if we strip out supply side factors.

Just the fact that euro zone money supply growth have averaged 0-3% in the past five years tells us that there is a fundamental deflationary problem in the euro zone – and in other European countries. The fact is that inflation has been kept up by negative supply shocks in the past five years and in many countries higher indirect taxes have certainly also helped kept consumer price inflation higher than otherwise would have been the case.

So yes supply side factors help drag inflation down across Europe at the moment – however, some of this is due to the effect of earlier negative supply side shocks are “dropping out” of the numbers and because European governments are taking a break from the austerity measures and as a result is no longer increasing indirect taxes to the same extent as in earlier years in the crisis. Hence, what we are no seeing is to a large extent the real inflation picture in Europe and the fact is that Europe to a very large extent is caught in a quasi-deflatonary trap not unlike what we had in Japan for 15 years.

Here comes the Zero Lower Bound

Over the past five years it is not only the ECB that stubbornly has argued that monetary policy was easy, while it in fact was über tight. Other European central banks have failed in a similar manner. I could mention the Polish, the Czech central banks and the Swedish Riksbank. They have all to kept monetary policy too tight – and the result is that in all three countries inflation is now well-below the central bank’s inflation targets. Sweden already is in deflation and deflation might very soon also be the name of the game in the Czech Republic and Poland. It is monetary policy failure my friends!

In the case of Poland and Sweden the central banks have had plenty of room to cut interest rates, but both the Polish central bank and the Swedish Riksbank have been preoccupied with other issues. The Riksbank has been busy talking about macro prudential indicators and the risk of a property market bubble, while the economy has slowed and we now have deflation. In fact the Riksbank has consistently missed its 2% inflation target on the downside for years.

In Poland the central bank for mysteries reasons hiked interest rates in early 2012 and have ever since refused to acknowledged that the Polish economy has been slowing fairly dramatically and that inflation is likely to remain well-below its official 2.5% inflation target. In fact yesterday the Polish central bank published new forecasts for real GDP growth and inflation and the central bank forecasts inflation to stay well-below 2.5% in the next three years and real GDP is forecasted to growth much below potential growth.

If a central bank fails to hit its inflation target blame the central bank and if a central bank forecasts three years of failure to hit the target something is badly wrong. Polish monetary policy remains overly tight according to it own forecasts!

The stubbornly tight monetary stance of the Polish, the Czech and the Swedish central banks over the past couple of years have pushed these countries into a basically deflationary situation. That mean that these central banks now have to ease more than would have been the case had they not preoccupied themselves with property prices, the need for structural reforms and fiscal policy in recent years. However, as interest rates have been cut in all three countries – but too late and too little – we are now inching closer and closer to the Zero Lower Bound on interest rates.

In fact the Czech central bank has been there for some time and the Polish and the Swedish central bank might be there much earlier than policy makers presently realise. If we just get one “normal size” negative shock to the European economy and then the Polish and Swedish will have eventually to cut rates to zero. In fact with Sweden already in deflation one could argue that the Riksbank already should have cut rates to zero.

The Swedish and the Polish central banks are not unique in this sense. Most central banks in the developed world are very close to the ZLB or will get there if we get another negative shock to the global economy. However, most of them seem to be completely unprepared for this. Yes, the Federal Reserve now have a fairly well-defined framework for conducting monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound, but it is still very imperfect. Bank of Japan is probably closer to having a operational framework at the ZLB. For the rest of the central banks you would have to say that they seem clueless about monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound. In fact many central bankers seem to think that you cannot ease monetary policy more when you hit the ZLB. We of course know that is not the case, but few central bankers seem to be able to answer how to conduct monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment.

It is mysteries how central banks in apparently civilised and developed countries after five years of crisis have still not figured out how to combat deflation with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound. It is a mental liquidity trap and it is telling of the serious institutional dysfunctionalities that dominate global central banking that central bankers are so badly prepared for dealing with the present situation.

But it is nonetheless a fact and it is hard not to think that we could be heading for decades of deflation in Europe if something revolutionary does not happen to the way monetary policy is conducted in Europe – not only by the ECB, but also by other central banks in Europe. In that sense the track record of the Swedish Riksbank or the Polish and Czech central banks is not much better than that of the ECB.

We can avoid deflation – it is easy!

Luckily there is a way out of deflation even when interest rates are stuck at zero. Anybody reading the Market Monetarists blogs know this and luckily some central bankers know it as well. BoJ chief Kuroda obviously knows what it takes to take Japan out of deflation and he is working on it. As do Czech central bank chief Miroslav Singer who last week – finally  – moved to use the exchange rate as policy instrument and devalued the Czech kurona by introducing a floor on EUR/CZK of 27. By doing this he copied the actions of the Swiss central bank. So there is hope.

Some central bankers do understand that there might be an Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. You can always avoid deflation. It is insanely easy, but mentally it seems to be a big challenge for central bankers in most countries in the world.

I am pretty optimistic that the Fed’s actions over the past year is taking the US economy out of the crisis. I am optimistic that the Bank of Japan will win the fight against deflation. I am totally convinced that the Swiss central bank is doing the right thing and I am hopeful that Miroslav Singer in the Czech Republic is winning the battle to take the Czech economy out of the deflationary trap. And I am even optimistic that the recent global positive supply shock will help lift global growth.

However, the ECB is still caught in its own calvinist logic and seems unable to realise what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the past failures of the Bank of Japan. The Swedish central bank remains preoccupied with macro prudential stuff and imaginary fears of a property market bubble, while the Swedish economy now caught is in a deflationary state. The Polish central bank continues to forecast that it will fail to meet its own inflation target, while we are inching closer and closer to deflation. I could mention a number of other central banks in the world which seem trapped in the same kind of failed policies.

Ben Bernanke once argued that the Bank of Japan should show Rooseveltian resolve to bring Japan out of the deflationary trap. Unfortunately very few central bankers in the world today are willing to show any resolve at all despite the fact that we at least Europe is sinking deeper and deeper into a deflationary trap.


Update: Former Riksbank deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson comments on the Swedish deflation. See here.

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