The root of most fallacies in economics: Forgetting to ask WHY prices change

Even though I am a Dane and work for a Danish bank I tend to not follow the Danish media too much – after all my field of work is international economics. But I can’t completely avoid reading Danish newspapers. My greatest frustration when I read the financial section of Danish newspapers undoubtedly is the tendency to reason from different price changes – for example changes in the price of oil or changes in bond yields – without discussing the courses of the price change.

The best example undoubtedly is changes in (mortgage) bond yields. Denmark has been a “safe haven” in the financial markets so when the euro crisis escalated in 2011 Danish bond yields dropped dramatically and short-term government bond yields even turned negative. That typically triggered the following type of headline in Danish newspapers: “Danish homeowners benefit from the euro crisis” or “The euro crisis is good news for the Danish economy”.

However, I doubt that any Danish homeowner felt especially happy about the euro crisis. Yes, bond yields did drop and that cut the interest rate payments for homeowners with floating rate mortgages. However, bond yields dropped for a reason – a sharp deterioration of the growth outlook in the euro zone due to the ECB’s two unwarranted interest rate hikes in 2011. As Denmark has a pegged exchange rate to the euro Denmark “imported” the ECB’s monetary tightening and with it also the prospects for lower growth. For the homeowner that means a higher probability of becoming unemployed and a prospect of seeing his or her property value go down as the Danish economy contracted. In that environment lower bond yields are of little consolation.

Hence, the Danish financial journalists failed to ask the crucial question why bond yields dropped. Or said in another way they failed to listen to the advice of Scott Sumner who always tells us not to reason from a price change.

This is what Scott has to say on the issue:

My suggestion is that people should never reason from a price change, but always start one step earlier—what caused the price to change.  If oil prices fall because Saudi Arabia increases production, then that is bullish news.  If oil prices fall because of falling AD in Europe, that might be expansionary for the US.  But if oil prices are falling because the euro crisis is increasing the demand for dollars and lowering AD worldwide; confirmed by falls in commodity prices, US equity prices, and TIPS spreads, then that is bearish news.

I totally agree. When we see a price change – for example oil prices or bond yields – we should ask ourselves why prices are changing if we want to know what macroeconomic impact the price change will have. It is really about figuring out whether the price change is caused by demand or supply shocks.

The euro strength is not necessarily bad news – more on the currency war that is not a war

A very good example of this general fallacy of forgetting to ask why prices are changing is the ongoing discussion of the “currency war”. From the perspective of some European policy makers – for example the French president Hollande – the Bank of Japan’s recent significant stepping up of monetary easing is bad news for the euro zone as it has led to a strengthening of the euro against most other major currencies in the world. The reasoning is that a stronger euro is hurting European “competitiveness” and hence will hurt European exports and therefore lower European growth.

This of course is a complete fallacy. Even ignoring the fact that the ECB can counteract any negative impact on European aggregate demand (the Sumner critique also applies for exports) we can see that this is a fallacy. What the “currency war worriers” fail to do is to ask why the euro is strengthening.

The euro is of course strengthening not because the ECB has tightened monetary policy but because the Bank of Japan and the Federal Reserve have stepped up monetary easing.

With the Fed and the BoJ significantly stepping up monetary easing the growth prospects for the largest and the third largest economies in the world have greatly improved. That surely is good news for European exporters. Yes, European exporters might have seen a slight erosion of their competitiveness, but I am pretty sure that they happily will accept that if they are told that Japanese and US aggregate demand – and hence imports – will accelerate strongly.

Instead of just looking at the euro rate European policy makers should consult more than one price (the euro rate) and look at other financial market prices – for example European stock prices. European stock prices have in fact increased significantly since August-September when the markets started to price in more aggressive monetary easing from the Fed and the BoJ. Or look at bond yields in the so-called PIIGS countries – they have dropped significantly. Both stock prices and bond yields in Europe hence are indicating that the outlook for the European economy is improving rather than deteriorating.

The oil price fallacy – growth is not bad news, but war in the Middle East is

A very common fallacy is to cry wolf when oil prices are rising – particularly in the US. The worst version of this fallacy is claiming that Federal Reserve monetary easing will be undermined by rising oil prices.

This of course is complete rubbish. If the Fed is easing monetary policy it will increase aggregate demand/NGDP and likely also NGDP in a lot of other countries in the world that directly or indirectly is shadowing Fed policy. Hence, with global NGDP rising the demand for commodities is rising – the global AD curve is shifting to the right. That is good news for growth – not bad news.

Said another way when the AD curve is shifting to the right – we are moving along the AS curve rather than moving the AS curve. That should never be a concern from a growth perspective. However, if oil prices are rising not because of the Fed or the actions of other central banks – for example because of fears of war in the Middle East then we have to be concerned from a growth perspective. This kind of thing of course is what happened in 2011 where the two major supply shocks – the Japanese tsunami and the revolutions in Northern Africa – pushed up oil prices.

At the time the ECB of course committed a fallacy by reasoning from one price change – the rise in European HICP inflation. The ECB unfortunately concluded that monetary policy was too easy as HICP inflation increased. Had the ECB instead asked why inflation was increasing then we would likely have avoided the rate hikes – and hence the escalation of the euro crisis. The AD curve (which the ECB effectively controls) had not shifted to the right in the euro area. Instead it was the AS curve that had shifted to the left. The ECB’s failure to ask why prices were rising nearly caused the collapse of the euro.

The money supply fallacy – the fallacy committed by traditional monetarists 

Traditional monetarists saw the money supply as the best and most reliable indicator of the development in prices (P) and nominal spending (PY). Market Monetarists do not disagree that there is a crucial link between money and prices/nominal spending. However, traditional monetarists tend(ed) to always see the quantity of money as being determined by the supply of money and often disregarded changes in the demand for money. That made perfectly good sense for example in the 1970s where the easy monetary policies were the main driver of the money supply in most industrialized countries, but that was not the case during the Great Moderation, where the money supply became “endogenous” due to a rule-based monetary policies or during the Great Recession where money demand spiked in particularly the US.

Hence, where traditional monetarists often fail – Allan Meltzer is probably the best example today – is that they forget to ask why the quantity of money is changing. Yes, the US money base exploded in 2008 – something that worried Meltzer a great deal – but so did the demand for base money. In fact the supply of base money failed to increase enough to counteract the explosion in demand for US money base, which effectively was a massive tightening of US monetary conditions.

So while Market Monetarists like myself certainly think money is extremely important we are skeptical about using the money supply as a singular indicator of the stance of monetary policy. Therefore, if we analyse money supply data we should constantly ask ourselves why the money supply is changing – is it really the supply of money increasing or is it the demand for money that is increasing? The best way to do that is to look at market data. If market expectations for inflation are going up, stock markets are rallying, the yield curve is steepening and global commodity prices are increasing then it is pretty reasonable to assume global monetary conditions are getting easier – whether or not the money supply is increasing or decreasing.

Finally I should say that my friends Bob Hetzel and David Laidler would object to this characterization of traditional monetarism. They would say that of course one should look at the balance between money demand and money supply to assess whether monetary conditions are easy or tight. And I would agree – traditional monetarists knew that very well, however, I would also argue that even Milton Friedman from time to time forgot it and became overly focused on money supply growth.

And finally I happily will admit committing that fallacy very often and I still remain committed to studying money supply data – after all being a Market Monetarist means that you still are 95% old-school traditional monetarist at least in my book.

PS maybe the root of all bad econometrics is the also forgetting to ask WHY prices change.

The exchange rate fallacy: Currency war or a race to save the global economy?

This is from CNB.com:

Faced with a stubbornly slow and uneven global economic recovery, more countries are likely to resort to cutting the value of their currencies in order to gain a competitive edge.

Japan has set the stage for a potential global currency war, announcing plans to create money and buy bonds as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to stimulate the moribund growth pace…

Economists in turn are expecting others to follow that lead, setting off a battle that would benefit those that get out of the gate quickest but likely hamper the nascent global recovery and the relatively robust stock market.

This pretty much is what I would call the ‘exchange rate fallacy’ – hence the belief that monetary easing in someway is a zero sum game where monetary easing works through an “unfair” competitiveness channel and one country’s gain is another country’s lose.

Lets take the arguments one-by-one.

“…countries are likely to resort to cutting the value of their currencies in order to gain a competitive edge.”

The perception here is that monetary policy primarily works through a “competitiveness channel” where a monetary easing leads to a weakening of the currency and this improve the competitiveness of the nation by weakening the real value of the currency. The problem with this argument is first of all that this only works if there is no increase in prices and wages. It is of course reasonable to assume that that is the case in the short-run as prices and wages tend to be sticky. However, empirically such gains are minor.

I think a good illustration of this is relative performance of Danish and Swedish exports in 2008-9. When crisis hit in 2008 the Swedish krona weakened sharply as the Riksbank moved to cut interest rates aggressive and loudly welcomed the weakening of the krona. On the other hand Denmark continued to operate it’s pegged exchange rate regime vis-a-vis the euro. In other words Sweden initially got a massive boost to it’s competitiveness position versus Denmark.

However, take a look at the export performance of the two countries in the graph below.

swedkexports
Starting in Q3 2008 both Danish and Swedish exports plummeted. Yes, Swedish dropped slightly less than Danish exports but one can hardly talk about a large difference when it is taken into account how much the Swedish krona weakened compared to the Danish krone.

And it is also obvious that such competitiveness advantage is likely to be fairly short-lived as inflation and wage growth sooner or later will pick up and erode any short-term gains from a weakening of the currency.

The important difference between Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9 was hence not the performance of exports.

The important difference on the other hand the performance of domestic demand. Just have a look at private consumption in Sweden and Denmark in the same period.

SWDKcons

It is very clear that Swedish private consumption took a much smaller hit than Danish private consumption in 2008-9 and consistently has grown stronger in the following years.

The same picture emerges if we look at investment growth – here the difference it just much bigger.

swdkinvest

The difference between the performance of the Danish economy and the Swedish economy during the Great Recession hence have very little to do with export performance and everything to do with domestic demand.

Yes, initially Sweden gained a competitive advantage over Denmark, but the major difference was that Riksbanken was not constrained in it ability to ease monetary policy by a pegged exchange rate in the same way as the Danish central bank (Nationalbanken) was.

(For more on Denmark and Sweden see my earlier post The luck of the ‘Scandies’)

Hence, we should not see the exchange rate as a measure of competitiveness, but rather as an indicator of monetary policy “tightness”.When the central bank moves to ease monetary policy the country’s currency will tend to ease, but the major impact on aggregate demand will not be stronger export performance, but rather stronger growth in domestic demand. There are of course numerous examples of this in monetary history. I have earlier discussed the case of the Argentine devaluation in 2001 that boosted domestic demand rather exports. The same happened in the US when FDR gave up the gold standard in 1931. Therefore, when journalists and commentators focus on the relationship between monetary easing, exchange rates and “competitiveness” they are totally missing the point.

The ‘foolproof’ way out of deflation

That does not mean that the exchange rate is not important, but we should not think of the exchange rate in any other way than other monetary policy instruments like interest rates. Both can lead to a change in the money base (the core monetary policy instrument) and give guidance about future changes in the money base.

With interest rates effectively stuck at zero in many developed economies central banks needs to use other instruments to escape deflation. So far the major central banks of the world has focused on “quantitative easing” – increasing in the money base by buying (domestic) financial assets such as government bonds. However, another way to increase the money base is obviously to buy foreign assets – such as foreign currency or foreign bonds. Hence, there is fundamentally no difference between the Bank of Japan buying Japanese government bonds and buying foreign bonds (or currency). It is both channels for increasing the money base to get out of deflation.

In fact on could argue that the exchange rate channel is a lot more “effective” channel of monetary expansion than “regular” QE as exchange rate intervention is a more transparent and direct way for the central bank to signal it’s intentions to ease monetary policy, but fundamentally it is just another way of monetary easing.

It therefore is somewhat odd that many commentators and particularly financial journalists don’t seem to realise that FX intervention is just another form of monetary easing and that it is no less “hostile” than other forms of monetary easing. If the Federal Reserve buys US government treasuries it will lead to a weakening of dollar in the same way it would do if the Fed had been buying Spanish government bonds. There is no difference between the two. Both will lead to an expansion of the money base and to a weaker dollar.

“Economists in turn are expecting others to follow that lead, setting off a battle that would benefit those that get out of the gate quickest but likely hamper the nascent global recovery and the relatively robust stock market”

This quote is typical of the stories about “currency war”. Monetary easing is seen as a zero sum game and only the first to move will gain, but it will be on the expense of other countries. This argument completely misses the point. Monetary easing is not a zero sum game – in fact in an quasi-deflationary world with below trend-growth a currency war is in fact a race to save the world.

Just take a look at Europe. Since September both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have moved towards a dramatically more easy monetary stance, while the ECB has continue to drag its feet. In that sense one can say that that the US and Japan have started a “currency war” against Europe and the result has been that both the yen and the dollar have been weakened against the euro. However, the question is whether Europe is better off today than prior to the “currency war”. Anybody in the financial markets would tell you that Europe is doing better today than half  a year ago and European can thank the Bank of Japan and the Fed for that.

So how did monetary easing in the US and Japan help the euro zone? Well, it is really pretty simple. Monetary easing (and the expectation of further monetary easing) in Japan and the US as push global investors to look for higher returns outside of the US and Japan. They have found the higher returns in for example the Spanish and Irish bond markets. As a result funding costs for the Spanish and Irish governments have dropped significantly and as a result greatly eased the tensions in the European financial markets. This likely is pushing up money velocity in the euro zone, which effectively is monetary easing (remember MV=PY) – this of course is paradoxically what is now making the ECB think that it should (prematurely!) “redraw accommodation”.

The ECB and European policy makers should therefore welcome the monetary easing from the Fed and the BoJ. It is not an hostile act. In fact it is very helpful in easing the European crisis.

If the more easy monetary stance in Japan and US was an hostile act then one should have expected to see the European markets take a beating. That have, however, not happened. In fact both the European fixed income and equity markets have rallied strongly on particularly the new Japanese government’s announcement that it want the Bank of Japan to step up monetary easing.

So it might be that some financial journalists and policy makers are scare about the prospects for currency war, but investors on the other hand are jubilant.

If you don’t need monetary easing – don’t import it

Concluding, I strongly believe that a global “currency war” is very good news given the quasi-deflationary state of the European economy and so far Prime Minister Abe and Fed governor Bernanke have done a lot more to get the euro zone out of the crisis than any European central banker has done and if European policy makers don’t like the strengthening of the euro the ECB can just introduce quantitative easing. That would curb the strengthening of the euro, but more importantly it would finally pull the euro zone out of the crisis.

Hence, at the moment Europe is importing monetary easing from the US and Japan despite the euro has been strengthening. That is good news for the European economy as monetary easing is badly needed. However, other countries might not need monetary easing.

As I discussed in my recent post on Mexico a country can decide to import or not to import monetary easing by allowing the currency to strengthen or not. If the Mexican central bank don’t want to import monetary easing from the US then it can simply allow the peso strengthen in response to the Fed’s monetary easing.

Currency war is not a threat to the global economy, but rather it is what could finally pull the global economy out of this crisis – now we just need the ECB to join the war.

Bob Murphy on fiscal austerity – he is nearly right

Bob Murphy has a very good discussion on Econlib about “What Economic Research Says About Fiscal Austerity and Higher Tax Rates”.

Bob has a very good discussion about why the traditional keynesian thinking on monetary policy is wrong and has a good discussion about what Bob terms “Expansionary Austerity”, but what also have been termed expansionary fiscal contractions.

Bob among other points to Giavazz and Pagano’s pathbreaking 1990 study “Can Severe Fiscal Contractions Be Expansionary? Tales of Two Small European Countries.”  Giavazz and Pagano in their paper highlight two cases of expansionary fiscal contractions. That is Denmark 1982-1985 and Ireland 1987-89. In both cases fiscal policy was tightened and the public deficit reduced dramatically and in both cases – contrary to what (paleo?) Keynesian theory would predicted – the economy expanded.

The Danish and Irish cases are hence often highlighted when the case is made that fiscal policy can be tightened without leading to a recession. I fully share this view. However, where a lot of the literature on expansionary fiscal contractions – including Bob’s mini survey of the literature – fails is that the role of monetary policy is not discussed. In fact I would argue that Denmark was a case of an expansionary monetary contraction – a the introduction of new strict pegged exchange rate regime strongly reduced inflation expectations (I might return to that issue in a later post…).

In all the cases I know of where there has been expansionary fiscal contractions monetary policy has been kept accommodative in the since that nominal GDP – which of course is determined by the central bank – is kept “on track”. This was also the case in the Danish and Irish cases where NGDP grew strong through the fiscal consolidation period.

My view is therefore that that fiscal austerity certainly will not have to lead to a recession IF monetary policy ensures a stable growth rate of nominal GDP. This in my view mean that we will have to be a lot more skeptical about austerity for example in Spain or Greece being successful. Spain and Greece do not have their own monetary policy and therefore the countries cannot counteract possible contractionary effects of fiscal austerity with monetary policy. That of course does not mean that these countries should not tighten fiscal policy – in my view there is no other option – but it mean that austerity in these countries are not likely to have the same positive growth effects as in Denmark and Ireland in the 1980s.

Therefore, in my view the future research on expansionary fiscal contractions should focus on the policy mix – what happened to monetary policy during the periods of fiscal consolidation? -instead of just focusing on the fiscal part of the story.

All the cases of expansionary fiscal consolidations I have studied has been accompanied by a period of fairly high and stable NGDP growth and the unsuccessful periods have been accompanied by monetary contractions. My challenge to Bob would therefore be that he should find just one case of a expansionary fiscal contraction where NGDP growth was weak…

PS the discussion above it about the business cycle perspective. Obviously if we take a longer term perspective then supply side factors dominate demand side factors. In these cases I think is it fairly easy to demonstrate that cuts in public spending will increase potential or long-term real GDP growth. I am pretty sure that Bob and I fully agree on this issue – others might not…

 

 

The luck of the ‘Scandies’

This week we are celebrating Milton Friedman’s centennial. Milton Friedman was known for a lot of things and one of them was his generally skeptical view of pegged exchange rates. In his famous article “The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates” he argued strongly against pegged exchange rates and for flexible exchange rates.

Any reader of this blog would know that I share Friedman’s sceptical view of fixed exchange rates. However, I will also have to say that my view on exchange rates policy has become more pragmatic over the years. In fact one can say that I also in this area have become more of a Friedmanite. This could seem as a paradox given Friedman’s passionate defence of floating exchange rates. However, Friedman was not dogmatic on this issue. Rather Friedman saw exchange rate policy as a way to control the money supply and he often argued that small countries might not have the proper instruments and “infrastructure” to properly control the money supply. Hence it would be an advantage for certain countries to “outsource” monetary policy by pegging the currency to for example the US dollar. Hong Kong’s currency board and its peg to the dollar was his favourite example. I am less inclined to think that Hong Kong could not do better than the currency board, but I nonetheless think Friedman was right in the sense that there fundamentally is no difference between using for example interest rates to control the money supply and using the exchange rate.

In his highly recommendable book Money Mischief Milton Friedman discusses the experience with fixed exchange rates in Chile and Israel. Friedman documents Chile’s horrible experience with fixed exchange rates and Israel’s equally successful experience with fixed exchange rates. It is in relation to these examples Friedman states that one never should underestimate the importance of luck of nations. That credo has been a big inspiration in my own thinking and has certainly helped me understand the difference in performance of different economies during the present crisis. It is not only about policy. With the right policies this crisis could have been avoid, but on the other hand despite of less than stellar conduct of monetary policy some countries have come through this crisis very well. Luck certainly is important.

The Scandinavian economies provide an excellent example of this. Denmark and Sweden are in many ways very similar countries – small open economies with high levels of GDP/capita, strong public finances, an overblown welfare state, but nonetheless quite flexible product and labour markets and a quite high level of social and economic cohesion. However, Denmark and Sweden differ in one crucial fashion – the monetary policy regime.

Denmark has a fixed exchange rate (against the euro), while Sweden has a floating exchange rate and an inflation targeting regime. The different monetary policy regimes have had a significant impact on the performance of the Danish and the Swedish economies during the present crisis.

2008-9: Sweden’s luck, Denmark’s misery

When crisis hit in 2008 both Denmark and Sweden got hit, but Denmark suffered much more than Sweden – not only economically but also in terms of financial sector distress. The key reason for this is that while monetary conditions contracted significantly Sweden did not see any major monetary contraction. What happened was that as investors scrambled for US dollars in the second of 2008 they were selling all other currencies – also the Swedish krona and the Danish krone.

The reaction from the Danish and the Swedish central banks was, however, very different. As the Danish krone came under selling pressures the Danish central bank acted according to the fixed exchange policy by buying kroner. As a result Denmark saw a sharp contraction in the money supply – a contraction that continued in 2009 and 2010, but the peg survived. The central bank had “won” and defended the peg, but at a high cost. The monetary contraction undoubtedly did a lot to worsen the Danish financial sector crisis and four years later Danish property prices continue to decline. On the other hand when the demand for Swedish krona plunged in 2008-9 the Swedish central bank allowed this to happen and the krona weakened sharply. Said in another way the Swedish money demand dropped relative to the money supply. Swedish monetary conditions eased, while Danish monetary conditions tightened.

It is often said, that Sweden’s stronger economic performance relative to Denmark in 2008-9 (and 2010-11 for that matter) is a result of the relative improvement in Swedish competitiveness as a result of the sharp depreciation of the Swedish krona. However, this is a wrong analysis of the situation. In fact the major difference between the Swedish economy and the Danish economy has very little to do with the relative export performance. In fact both countries saw a more or less equal drop in exports in 2008-9. The big difference was the performance in domestic demand. While Danish domestic demand collapsed and property prices were in a free fall, domestic demand in Sweden performed strongly and Swedish property prices continued to rise after the crisis hit. The difference obviously is a result of the different monetary policy reactions in the two countries.

This is basically luck – the Danish monetary regime led to tightening of monetary conditions in reaction to the external shock, while the Swedish central bank to a large extent counteracted the shock with an easing of monetary conditions.

2012: The useful Danish peg and the failures of Riksbanken

Today the Danish economy continues to do worse than the Swedish economy, but the luck is changing. And again this has to do with money demand. While the demand for Swedish krona and Danish kroner collapsed in 2008-9 the opposite is the case today. Today investors as a reaction to the euro crisis are running scared away from the euro and buying everything else (more or less). As a result money is floating into both Denmark and Sweden and the demand for both currencies (and Swedish and Danish assets in general) has escalated sharply. So contrary to 2008-9 the demand for (local) money is now rising sharply. This for obvious reasons is leading to appreciation pressures on the Scandinavian currencies.

Today, however, the Danes are lucky to have the peg. Hence, as the Danish krone has tended to appreciate the Danish central bank has stepped in and defended the peg by expanding the money base and for the first time in four years the Danish money supply (M2) is now showing real signs of recovering. This of course is also why Danish short-term bond yields and money market rates have turned negative. The money markets are being flooded with liquidity to keep the krone from strengthening. Hence, the Danish euro peg is doing a great job in avoiding a negative velocity shock. For the first time in four years Danes could be true happy about the peg.

On the other hand for the first time in four years the Swedish monetary policy regime is not work as well as one could have hoped. As the demand for Swedish krona has escalated Swedish monetary conditions are getting tighter and tighter day by day and the signs are pretty clear that Swedish money-velocity is contracting. This is hardly good news for the Swedish economy.

Obviously there is nothing stopping the Swedish central bank from counteracting the drop in velocity (the increased money demand) by expanding the money base and legendary Swedish deputy central bank governor Lars E. O. Svensson has been calling for monetary easing for a while, but the majority of board members in the Swedish central bank seem reluctant to step up and ease monetary policy even though it day by day is becoming evident that monetary easing is needed.

Good policies are the best substitute for good luck

Obviously neither the Danish nor the Swedish monetary policy regime is optimal under all circumstances and this is exactly what I have tried to demonstrate above. The difference between 2008-9 and 2011-12 is the impact on demand for the Danish and Swedish currency and these differences have been driven mostly by external factors.

Obviously one could (and should!) argue that Sweden’s problem today is not the floating exchange rate, but rather the inflation targeting regime. If Sweden instead had been targeting the (future) nominal GDP level then Riksbanken would already had eased monetary policy much more aggressively than has been the case to counteract the contraction in money-velocity.

Finally, it is clear that luck played a major role in how the crisis has played out in the Scandinavian crisis. However, with the right monetary policies – for example NGDP targeting – you are much more likely to have luck on your side when crisis hit.

—-

Related posts:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #4
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #6
Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
Bring on the “Currency war”
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons

Denmark and Norway were the PIIGS of the Scandinavian Currency Union

As the euro crisis continues speculation of an eventual break-up of the euro also continues. There are numerous examples in monetary history of currency unions breaking up. One is the breakup of the Scandinavian Currency Union in 1924.

I have found an interesting paper on this important event in Scandinavian monetary history. In his 2004-paper “The Decline and Fall of the Scandinavian Currency Union 1914 – 1924: Events in the Aftermath of World War I” Krim Talia discusses the reason for the collapse of the Scandinavian Currency Union.

Here is the abstract:

In 1873, Denmark, Norway and Sweden formed the Scandinavian Currency Union (SCU) and adopted the gold standard. The Union worked fairly smoothly during the next thirty years and was partly extended until 1914. The outbreak of World War I triggered a series of events that eventually would lead to the formal cancellation of the union in 1924. The suspension of convertibility and the export prohibition on gold in 1914, opened exchange rate tensions within the union, and acted as a first nail in the SCU’s coffin. Although the countries de facto had their currencies valued at different rates externally, the treaty of 1873 made them tradable at par within the union. This conflict, between de facto situation and de jure regulation, opened arbitrage opportunities for the public; but also resulted in opportunistic behaviour in the relation between the Scandinavian Central Banks. This study of the break-up of the SCU finds that the gold standard functioned as a unifying straitjacket on monetary policy and was an important prerequisite for a monetary union without a common central bank. It also challenges earlier work on the break-up of the SCU, by suggesting that the most important factor behind the centrifugal tensions within the Currency Union was the improved Swedish balance of trade following the outbreak of Word War I. The fact that wartime trade performance differed between the three countries made the currency area face an asymmetric external shock that required an exchange-rate adjustment – causing the fall of the union.

What is the implication for the euro zone? Well, I am not sure, but it might be interesting to have a closer look at the internal trade imbalance in the Scandinavian currency union and compare that to the imbalances that we have seen build in the euro zone during the boom-year prior to 2008. Both Denmark and Norway saw booms (and bubbles) during the first World War years and the early 1920s. In that sense Denmark and Norway looked like today’s PIIGS, while Sweden with it’s increasing trade surplus was the Germany of the Scandinavian currency union. In my previous post I described how insane monetary tightening in Norway and Denmark after 1924 lead to depression, while Sweden avoided depression.

Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today

History is fully of examples of massive monetary policy failure and today’s policy makers can learn a lot from studying these events and no one is better to learn from than Swedish monetary guru Gustav Cassel. In the 1920s Cassel tried – unfortunately without luck – to advise Danish and Norwegian policy makers from making a massive monetary policy mistake.

After the First World War policy makers across Europe wanted to return to the gold standard and in many countries it became official policy to return to the pre-war gold parity despite massive inflation during the war. This was also the case in Denmark and Norway where policy makers decided to return the Norwegian and the Danish krone to the pre-war parity.

The decision to bring back the currencies to the pre-war gold-parity brought massive economic and social hardship to Denmark and Norway in the 1920s and probably also killed of the traditionally strong support for laissez faire capitalism in the two countries. Paradoxically one can say that government failure opened the door for a massive expansion of the role of government in both countries’ economies. No one understood the political dangers of monetary policy failure better than Gustav Cassel.

Here you see the impact of the Price Level (Index 1924=100) of the deflation policies in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not go back to pre-war gold-parity.

While most of the world was enjoying relatively high growth in the second half of the 1920s the Danish and the Norwegian authorities brought hardship to their nations through a deliberate policy of deflation. As a result both nations saw a sharp rise in unemployment and a steep decline in economic activity. So when anybody tells you about how a country can go through “internal devaluation” please remind them of the Denmark and Norway in the 1920s. The polices were hardly successful, but despite the clear negative consequences policy makers and many economists in the Denmark and Norway insisted that it was the right policy to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

Here is what happened to unemployment (%).

Nobody listened to Cassel. As a result both the Danish and the Norwegian economies went into depression in the second half of the 1920s and unemployment skyrocketed. At the same time Finland and Sweden – which did not return to the pre-war gold-partiy – enjoyed strong post-war growth and low unemployment.

Gustav Cassel strongly warned against this policy as he today would have warned against the calls for “internal devaluation” in the euro zone. In 1924 Cassel at a speech in the Student Union in Copenhagen strongly advocated a devaluation of the Danish krone. The Danish central bank was not exactly pleased with Cassel’s message. However, the Danish central bank really had little to fear. Cassel’s message was overshadowed by the popular demand for what was called “Our old, honest krone”.

To force the policy of revaluation and return to the old gold-parity the Danish central bank tightened monetary policy dramatically and the bank’s discount rate was hiked to 7% (this is more or less today’s level for Spanish bond yields). From 1924 to 1924 to 1927 both the Norwegian and the Danish krone were basically doubled in value against gold by deliberate actions of the two Scandinavian nation’s central bank.

The gold-insanity was as widespread in Norway as in Denmark and also here Cassel was a lone voice of sanity. In a speech in Christiania (today’s Oslo) Cassel in November 1923 warned against the foolish idea of returning the Norwegian krone to the pre-war parity. The speech deeply upset Norwegian central bank governor Nicolai Rygg who was present at Cassel’s speech.

After Cassel’s speech Rygg rose and told the audience that the Norwegian krone had been brought back to parity a 100 years before and that it could and should be done again. He said: “We must and we will go back and we will not give up”. Next day the Norwegian Prime Minister Abraham Berge in an public interview gave his full support to Rygg’s statement. It was clear the Norwegian central bank and the Norwegian government were determined to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

This is the impact on the real GDP level of the gold-insanity in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not suffer from gold-insanity and grew nicely in the 1920s.

The lack of reason among Danish and Norwegian central bankers in the 1920s is a reminder what happens once the “project” – whether the euro or the gold standard – becomes more important than economic reason and it shows that countries will suffer dire economic, social and political consequences when they are forced through “internal devaluation”. In both Denmark and Norway the deflation of the 1920s strengthened the Socialists parties and both the Norwegian and the Danish economies as a consequence moved away from the otherwise successful  laissez faire model. That should be a reminder to any free market oriented commentators, policy makers and economists that a deliberate attempt of forcing countries through internal devaluation is likely to bring more socialism and less free markets. Gustav Cassel knew that – as do the Market Monetarists today.

—-

My account of these events is based on Richard Lester’s paper “Gold-Parity Depression in Denmark and Norway, 1925-1928” (Journal of Political Economy, August 1937)

Update: Here is an example that not all German policy makers have studied economic and monetary history.

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

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

The euro zone-US connection

– why the dollar’ status as reserve currency is important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear-of-floating via inflation targeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression

Even though I am a Danish economist I am certainly no expert on the Danish economy and I have certainly not spend much time blogging about the Danish economy and I have no plans to change that in the future. However, for some reason I today came to think about what would have been the impact on the Danish economy if the Danish krone had been pegged to the price of bacon rather than to gold at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Lets call it the Bacon Standard – or a the PIG PEG (thanks to Mikael Bonde Nielsen for that suggestion).

Today less than 10% of Danish export revenues comes from bacon export – back during in the 1920s it was much more sizable and agricultural products dominated export revenues and Denmark’s main trading partner was Great Britain. Since bacon prices and other agricultural product were highly correlated (and still are) the bacon price probably would have been a very good proxy for Danish export prices. Hence, a the PIG PEG would basically have been similar to Jeff Frankel’s Peg the Export Price (PEP) proposal (see my earlier posts on this idea here and here).

When the global crisis hit in 1929 it put significant downward pressure on global agricultural prices and in two years most agricultural prices had been halved. As a consequence of the massive drop in agricultural prices – including bacon prices – the crisis put a serious negative pressures on the Danish krone peg against gold. Denmark had relatively successfully reintroduced the gold standard in 1927, but when the crisis hit things changed dramatically.

Initially the Danish central bank (Danmarks Nationalbank) defended the gold standard and as a result the Danish economy was hit by a sharp monetary contraction. As I argued in my post on Russian monetary policy a negative shock to export prices is not a supply shock, but rather a negative demand shock under a fixed exchange rate regime – like the gold standard. Said in another way the Danish AD curve shifted sharply to the left.

The shock had serious consequences. Hence, Danish economic activity collapsed as most places in the world, unemployment spiked dramatically and strong deflationary pressures hit the economy.

Things got even worse when the British government in 1931 decided to give up the gold standard and eventually the Danish government decided to follow the lead from the British government and also give up the gold standard. However, unlike Sweden the Danish authorities felt very uncomfortable to go it’s own ways (like today…) and it was announced that the krone would be re-pegged against sterling. That strongly limited the expansionary impact of the decision to give up the gold standard. Therefore, it is certainly no coincidence that Swedish economy performed much better than the Danish economy during the 1930s.

The Danish economy, however, started to recovery in 1933. Two events spurred the recovery. First, FDR’s decision to give the gold standard helped the US economy to begin pulling out of the recovery and that helped global commodity prices which certainly helped Danish agricultural exports. Second, the so-called  Kanslergade Agreementa political agreement named after the home address of then Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning in the street Kanslergade in Copenhagen – lead to a devaluation of the Danish krone. Both events effectively were monetary easing.

What would the Bacon standard have done for the Danish economy?

While monetary easing eventually started to pull Denmark out of the Great Depression it didn’t happen before four year into the crisis and the recovery never became as impressive as the development in Sweden. Had Denmark instead had a Bacon Standard then things would likely have played out in a significantly more positive way. Hence, had the Danish krone been pegged to the price of bacon then it would have been “automatically” devalued already in 1929 and the gradual devaluation would have continued until 1933 after, which rising commodity prices (and bacon prices) gradually would have lead to a tightening of monetary conditions.

In my view had Denmark had the PIG PEG in 1929 the crisis would been much more short-lived and the economy would fast have recovered from the crisis. Unfortunately that was not the case and four years was wasted defending an insanely tight monetary policy.

Monetary disequilibrium leads to interventionism   

The Danish authorities’ decision to maintain the gold standard and then to re-peg to sterling had significant economic and social consequences. As a consequence the public support for interventionist policies grew dramatically and effectively lay the foundation for what came to be known as the danish “Welfare State”. Hence, the Kanslergade Agreement not only lead to a devaluation of the krone, but also to a significant expansion of the role of government in the Danish economy. In that sense the Kanslergade Agreement has parallels to FDR’s policies during the Great Depression – monetary easing, but also more interventionist policies.

Hence, the Danish experience is an example of Milton Friedman’s argument that monetary disequilibrium caused by a fixed exchange rate policy is likely to increase interventionist tendencies.

Bon appetite – or as we say in Danish velbekomme…

%d bloggers like this: