The cost of the Sino-US FX deal: Surging money market rates (in Hong Kong)

This is from Financial Times’ FT Fast this morning:

A key lending rate between Hong Kong banks jumped to its highest level since February, potentially making it more expensive to short the renminbi.

The overnight CNH-Hong Kong Interbank Offer Rate (Hibor), a daily benchmark for offshore renminbi interbank lending, jumped to 5.446 per cent on Thursday – its highest level since February 19 – from 1.56767 per cent yesterday, write Peter Wells and Hudson Lockett.

Hong Kong banks do not rely on Hibor to anywhere near the same degree that global banks rely on Libor, the more famous US-dollar counterpart that is a crucial benchmark for loans that global lenders rely on for trillions of dollars of funding each day.

As such, the spike in CNH-Hibor has little practical impact on the banks themselves, but it has recently been viewed as more of a deterrent to speculators betting on CNH, the offshore renminbi.

On January 12, CNH-Hibor hit 66.815 per cent, the highest level since the benchmark was introduced in 2013, amid heavy speculation the People’s Bank of China, acting through state-owned banks, was soaking up liquidity to make the cost of shorting the renminbi more prohibitive as the currency came under pressure from speculators.

Ahead of this month’s G20 summit Commerzbank analyst Hao Zhou was among those predicting the PBoC would hold the line at Rmb6.7 against the dollar for a number of reasons, including a desire to facilitate special drawing rights (SDR) operations set to begin on October 1. However, he noted that “of course, politics tops the agenda again, especially as China is keen to show its ability to manage the whole economy and financial markets although the country still faces strong capital outflows.”

The central bank today weakened the currency’s midpoint fix for the first time since the end of G20, a move in line with analyst predictions that efforts to shore up the renminbi’s value would dissipate when the summit was over.

A spike in Hibor would track with a scenario in which the central bank either intervened itself or had mainland banks sop up liquidity on its behalf. It also has other options – as Commerzbank’s Zhou noted late last month: “We also expect that China’s central bank will allow the local banks to trade CNH in September, in order to narrow the CNY-CNH spread.”

This happens after China and the US over the weekend agreed to “refrain from competitive devaluations and not target exchange rates for competitive purposes”.

As my loyal readers know I am very critical about this deal (see my post on that topic here) as I believe that it is an attempt to quasi fix global exchange rates to avoid ‘currency war’ effectively limits the possibility for monetary easing – both in the US and China.

Ending China’s crawling devaluation will be bad news 

Since the Federal Reserve in December hiked the fed funds target rate the People Bank of China effective has tried to decouple Chinese monetary policy from US monetary policy by allowing a crawling devaluation of the Renminbi.

rmb-crawling-devaluation

This in my view has played a positive role in offsetting the negative impact of the Fed’s foolish attempt to tighten US monetary conditions.

However, the Sino-US ‘currency peace’ deal limits the PBoC’s possibility of continuing this policy and this is why HIBOR rates are now surging. This obviously is bad news for the Chinese economy – in fact it is bad news for the global economy and markets.

China does not need tighter monetary conditions. Chinese monetary conditions in my view is still quasi-deflationary and if the PBoC abandons its unannounced crawling devaluation policy it will cause a excessive tightening of Chinese monetary conditions, which could push back the Chinese economy towards recession.

It is too bad that policy makers from the ‘Global Monetary Superpowers’ believe that limiting currency flexibility is the right policy. Instead they should embrace floating exchange rates and instead focus on avoiding the biggest risk to the global economy – deflation.

 

 

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PBoC should stop the silliness and float the RMB

This is morning we got this news (from Bloomberg):

China’s central bank conducted the biggest reverse-repurchase operations since September, adding funds to the financial system after money-market rates surged and equities slumped.

The People’s Bank of China offered 130 billion yuan ($19.9 billion) of seven-day reverse repos on Tuesday at an interest rate of 2.25 percent. The monetary authority suspended the operations in the last auction window on Dec. 31, ending a six-month run of cash injections that helped drive borrowing costs lower in an economy estimated to grow at the slowest pace in more than two decades.

The People’s Bank of China (PBoC) continues to behave as if there is not Tinbergen constraint, but the PBoC soon has to realize it cannot continue to try to ease monetary conditions through liquidity injects into the money markets, lowering of reserve requirements and cutting interest rates, while at the same time trying to maintain an artificially strong Renminbi.

What the PBoC effectively is doing it trying to ease monetary policy with the one hand, while at the same time tightening monetary policy with the other hand by intervening in the currency market to prop up the Renminbi.

Instead it is about time that PBoC either let the Renminbi float completely freely (which effectively would cause a significant depreciation of RMB) or implement a large devaluation – for example 30% – so to avoid any speculation of further devaluations and then introduce a peg to a basket of currency as hinted in December.

The problem with the present policy is that everybody in the market realizes that this is what we will get eventually and that has caused an escalation of the currency outflow from China and this outflow is likely to continue until the PBoC bites the bullet and introduce a completely new monetary regime. This halfway house will not stand for long and if the PBoC keeps fighting it the central bank will just do even more harm to the Chinese economy and potentially also cause an major banking crisis.

PBoC is not alone in making this mistake and the Tyranny of the Status Que is strong within central banks around the world. Two good example are Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Both countries have in recent months given up the tighten link to the US Dollar and devalued their currencies significantly. This in my view has been the right decision as both of these oil exporting countries have been suffering significantly from the continued decline in oil prices.

But neither the Kazakhstani nor the Azerbaijani central banks (and governments) have introduce new rule based monetary policy regimes. So one can say they have left the Dollar peg, but forgot to finish the job. Therefore policy makers in both countries should now focus on what regime should replace the Dollar peg. I would recommend an Export Price Norm for both countries, where their currencies are pegged to a basket of the oil prices and the currencies of the countries’ main trading partners.

And China need to do the same thing – not introducing an Export Price Norm, but rather let the Renminbi float and then introduce an NGDP target or a nominal wage growth target and it need to do it very soon to avoid an escalation of the financial distress.

The PBoC has the power to end this crisis right now by floating the Renminbi, but the longer this decision is postponed the bigger the risk of something blowing up becomes.

PS notice that despite the sharp rise in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran oil prices are now lower than on at the close of trading last week. That to me is a pretty strong indication just how worried that markets are about China.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

The alarming drop in Chinese nominal GDP will force the PBoC to devalue again

I am in the US on a speaking tour at the moment so I have not had a lot of time for blogging, but I thought that I just wanted to share one alarming macroeconomic number with my readers – the sharp drop in Chinese nominal GDP growth.

ChinaNGDP

Yesterday we got the the Q3 numbers and as the graph shows the sharp slowdown in Chinese NGDP, which started in early 2013 continues. A similar trend by the way is visible in Chinese money supply data.

This is of course very clearly shows just how much Chinese monetary conditions have tightened over the past 2 years and this is of course also the main reason for the sell-off global commodity prices and in the Emerging Markets in the same period.

One thing in the number, which is interesting is that Chinese real GDP growth is now outpacing nominal GDP growth. As a consequence the Chinese GDP deflator has turned negative. Said in another way – China has deflation and in fact the pace of deflation is accelerating.

PBoC – it is time to let the Renminbi float

Even though the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) has devalued the Renminbi slightly against the dollar the PBoC still manages the Chinese currency tightly against the US dollar. As a consequence the PBoC continues to import the tightening of monetary condition from the US on the back of the sharp appreciation of the dollar over the past year or so.

However, China does not need monetary tightening. The sharp decline NGDP growth rather shows that China need monetary easing!

So unless Fed Chair Janet Yellen changes her mind and ease US monetary policy the PBoC will have to devalue the Renminbi again and potentially completely decouple from the dollar and letting the Renminbi float freely.

To me it is only a matter of time before we get another Chinese devaluation and that very well could spell the end to the ‘dollar bloc’ as we know and that certainly should be welcome. On the other hand if the PBoC does not realize the need to de-couple the Renminbi from the dollar then it is very likely that Chinese growth will slump further and it will then only be an question of time before Chinese goes into recession.

This topic will be central to my lecture at the Dallas Fed on Thursday. See here.

PS My US trip so far has been very inspiring and I hope in the coming weeks to share some of my impressions.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

Kwanza devaluation is the right decision, but fundamental regime change is needed

This is from Reuters:

Angola’s central bank devalued the kwanza currency by about 6 percent against the dollar, a statement showed, a move analysts said was aimed at stimulating foreign currency inflows eroded by falling global oil prices.

 According to the bank’s latest update on the official exchange rate, issued late on Thursday, one U.S. dollar will now cost 116-117 kwanza, compared with 109-111 before.

The exchange rate is however much higher at 185-195 on a thriving informal market.

Plunging oil prices have hit Africa’s second largest crude exporter, forcing the central bank to restrict dollar sales as foreign exchange supplies dried up.

Analysts said the official devaluation would not be sufficient to shore up Angola’s foreign reserves.

I have long argued that Angola’s central bank would be forced to devalue it’s currency in response to the combination of falling oil prices and slowing Chinese growth – oil is Angola’s main export and China is both the biggest investor into Angola and the biggest importer of Angolan goods (oil).

This is what I wrote two years ago:

Hence Angola de facto operates a pegged exchange rate regime and it is pretty clear in my view that this regime is likely to exacerbate the negative impact from the ‘China shock’.

The China shock is likely to lead to depreciation pressures on the Angolan kwanza in two ways. First the drop in global oil prices is likely to push down Angolan export prices – more or less by a one-to-one ratio. Second, the expected drop in Chinese investment activity is likely to also reduce Chinese direct investments into Angola. The depreciation pressures could potentially become very significant. However, if the Angolan central bank tries to maintain a quasi-pegged exchange rate then these depreciation pressures will automatically translate into a significant monetary tightening. The right thing to do is therefore obvious to allow (if needed) the kwanza to depreciate to adjust to the shock.

What we have been seeing is effectively the petro-monetary transmission mechanism at work. Hence, given Angola’s dollar peg a drop in oil prices – and hence in Angolan export prices – has caused downward pressure kwanza and the Angolan central bank has tried to curb these depreciation pressures by tightening monetary conditions. However, the central bank has now rightly allowed the necessary devaluation of the kwanza.

However, the latest policy decision from the Angolan central bank – while warranted – is not enough. The decision is essentially a completely discretionary adjustment within the present regime. However, what Angola really needs is not discretionary adjustments of the exchange rate peg, but a rule-based monetary policy regime, which automatically adjusts monetary conditions to external shocks – such as a decline in global oil prices.

This is what I suggested back in 2013:

There are two ways of ensuring such depreciation. The first one is to simply to allow the kwanza to float freely. That however, would necessitate serious reforms to deepen the Angolan capital markets and the introduction of an nominal target – such as either an inflation target or an NGDP target. Even though financial markets reforms undoubtedly are warranted I have a hard time seeing that happening fast. Therefore, an alternative option – the introduction of a Export Price Norm (EPN) is – is clearly something the Angolan authorities should consider. What I call EPN Jeff Frankel originally termed Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP).

I have long been a proponent of the Export Price Norm for commodity exporting economies such as Russia, Australia or Angola (or Malaysia for that matter). The idea with EPN is that the commodity exporting economy pegs the currency to the price of the commodity it exports such as oil in the case of Angola. Alternatively the currency should be pegged to a basket of a foreign currency (for example the dollar) and the oil price. The advantage of EPN is that it will combine the advantages of both a floating exchange (an “automatic” adjustment to external shocks) and of a pegged exchange rate (a rule based monetary policy). Furthermore, for a country like Angola where nearly everything that is being produced in the country is exported the EPN will effectively be an quasi-NGDP target as export growth and aggregate demand growth (NGDP growth) will be extremely highly correlated. So by stabilizing the export price in local currency the central bank will effectively be stabilizing aggregate demand and NGDP.

Operationally it would be extremely simple for the Angolan central bank to implement an EPN regime as al it would take would be to target a basket of for example oil and US dollars, which would not be very different operationally than what it is already doing. Without having done the ‘math’ I would imagine that a 20% oil and 80% US dollar basket would be fitting. That would provide a lot of projection against the China shock.

So yes, the devaluation of the kwanza is the right policy decision right now and within the present (outdated) regime, but the Angolan authorities should as fast as policy move towards a entirely new monetary policy regime and my recommendation would certainly be to implement some variation of an Export Price Norm.

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See some of my older posts on EPN here:

Oil-exporters need to rethink their monetary policy regimes

The Colombian central bank should have a look at the Export Price Norm

Ukraine should adopt an ‘Export Price Norm’

The RBA just reminded us about the “Export Price Norm”

The “Export Price Norm” saved Australia from the Great Recession

Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Angola should adopt an ‘Export-Price-Norm’ to escape the ‘China shock’

Commodity prices, currencies and monetary policy

Malaysia should peg the renggit to the price of rubber and natural gas

The Cedi Panic: When prayers don’t work you go for currency controls

A modest proposal for post-Chavez monetary reform in Venezuela

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

PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure

Turning the Russian petro-monetary transmission mechanism upside-down

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

Great, Greater, Greatest – Three Finnish Depressions

Brad DeLong has suggested that we rename the Great Recession the GreatER Depression in Europe as the crisis in terms of real GDP lose now is bigger in Europe than it was it during the Great Depression.

Surely it is a very simplified measure just to look at the development in the level of real GDP and surely the present socio-economic situation in Europe cannot be compared directly to the economic hardship during the 1930s. That said, I do believe that there are important lessons to be learned by comparing the two periods.

In my post from Friday – Italy’s Greater Depression – Eerie memories of the 1930s – I inspired by the recent political unrest in Italy compared the development in real GDP in Italy during the recent crisis with the development in the 1920s and 1930s.

The graph in that blog post showed two things. First, Italy’s real GDP lose in the recent crisis has been bigger than during 1930s and second that monetary easing (a 41% devaluation) brought Italy out of the crisis in 1936.

I have been asked if I could do a similar graph on Finland. I have done so – but I have also added the a third Finnish “Depression” and that is the crisis in the early 1990s related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Nordic banking crisis. The graph below shows the three periods.

Three Finnish Depressions

(Sources: Angus Maddison’s “Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development” and IMF, 2014 is IMF forecast)

The difference between monetary tightening and monetary easing

The most interesting story in the graph undoubtedly is the difference in the monetary response during the 1930s and during the present crisis.

In October 1931 the Finnish government decided to follow the example of the other Nordic countries and the UK and give up (or officially suspend) the gold standard.

The economic impact was significant and is very clearly illustrate in the graph (look at the blue line from year 2-3).

We have nearly imitate take off. I am not claiming the devaluation was the only driver of this economic recovery, but it surely looks like monetary easing played a very significant part in the Finnish economic recovery from 1931-32.

Contrary to this during the recent crisis we obviously saw a monetary policy response in 2009 from the ECB – remember Finland is now a euro zone country – which helped start a moderate recovery. However, that recovery really never took off and was ended abruptly in 2011 (year 3 in the graph) when the ECB decided to hike interest rate twice.

So here is the paradox – in 1931 two years into the crisis and with a real GDP lose of around 5% compared to 1929 the Finnish government decided to implement significant monetary easing by devaluing the Markka.

In 2011 three  years into the present crisis and a similar output lose as in 1931 the ECB decided to hike interest rates! Hence, the policy response was exactly the opposite of what the Nordic countries (and Britain) did in 1931.

The difference between monetary easing and monetary tightening is very clear in the graph. After 1931 the Finnish economy recovered nicely, while the Finnish economy has fallen deeper into crisis after the ECB’s rate hikes in 2011 (lately “helped” by the Ukrainian-Russian crisis).

Just to make it clear – I am not claiming that the only thing import here is monetary policy (even though I think it nearly is) and surely structural factors (for example the “disappearance” of Nokia in recent years and serious labour market problems) and maybe also fiscal policy (for example higher defense spending in the late-1930s) played role, but I think it is hard to get around the fact that the devaluation of 1931 did a lot of good for the Finnish economy, while the ECB 2011’s rate hikes have hit the Finnish economy harder than is normally acknowledged (particularly in Finland).

Finland: The present crisis is The Greatest Depression

Concluding, in terms of real GDP lose the present crisis is a GreatER Depression than the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, it is not just greater – in fact it is the GreatEST Depression and the output lose now is bigger than during the otherwise very long and deep crisis of the 1990s.

The policy conclusions should be clear…

PS this is what the New York Times wrote on October 13 1931) about the Finnish decision to suspend the gold standard:

“The decision of taken under dramatic circumstances…foreign rates of exchange immediately soared about 25 per cent”

And the impact on the Finnish economy was correctly “forecasted” in the article:

“In commercial circles it is expected that the suspension (of the gold standard) will greatly stimulate industries and exports.”

HT Vladimir

Related post:
Currency union and asymmetrical supply shocks – the case of Finland

Bennett McCallum told “my” Kuroda story a decade ago

From to time I will make an argument and then later realize that it really wasn’t my own independently thought out argument, but rather a “reproduction” of something I once read. Often it would be Milton Friedman who has been my inspiration, however, Friedman is certainly not my only inspiration.

Another economist who undoubtedly have had quite a bit of an influence on my thinking is Bennett McCallum and guess what – it turns out that the argument that I was making in my latest post on the “Kuroda recovery” is very similar to the type of argument Bennett made in a number of papers around a decade ago about how to get Japan out of the deflationary trap. Bennett has kindly pointed this out to me. I know Bennett’s work on Japan quite well, but when I was writing my post yesterday I didn’t realize how close my thinking was to Bennett’s arguments.

I therefore think it is appropriate to touch on some of Bennett’s main conclusions and how they relate to the situation in Japan today.

I my previous post I argued that easing of monetary policy in Japan would primarily work through an increase in domestic demand – contrary to the general perception that monetary easing would primarily boost exports through a depreciation of the yen. Bennett told the exact same story a decade ago in his paper “Japanese Monetary Policy, 1991–2001” (and a number of other papers).

While I used general historical observations to make my argument Bennett in his 2003 paper uses a formal model. His model is a variation of an open economy DSGE model calibrated for the Japanese economy originally developed with Edward Nelson.

In his paper Bennett simulates a shock to inflation expectations – from -1% inflation to +1% inflation. Hence, this is not very different from the actual shock we are presently seeing in Japan. However, while the “Kuroda-shock” is a direct shock to the money base in Bennett’s example the exchange rate is used as the policy instrument.  However, this is not really important for the results in the model (as far as I can see at least…).

In Bennett’s model the Bank of Japan is buying foreign assets to weaken the yen to increase inflation expectations. According to the general perception this should lead to an marked improvement Japanese net exports. However, take a look at what conclusion Bennett reaches:

The variable on whose response we shall focus is the home country’s— i.e., Japan’s—net export balance in real terms….we see that the upward jump in the target inflation rate (π), which occurs in period 1, does indeed induce an exchange-rate depreciation rate that remains positive for over two years. Inflation, not surprisingly, rises and stays above its initial value for over two years, then oscillates and settles down at a new steady state rate of 0.005 (in relation to its starting value). Quite surprisingly, p responds more strongly than s so the real exchange rate appreciates. As expected, however, real output rises strongly for two years.

Most importantly, the real (Japanese) export balance is so affected by the two-year increase in real output that it turns negative and stays negative for almost two years.

Hence, Bennett’s simulations shows the same result as i postulated in my previous post – that monetary easing even if it leads to a substantial weakening of the yen will primarily boost domestic demand. In fact it is likely that after a few quarters the boost to domestic demand will lead to higher import growth than export growth and hence the net impact on the Japanese trade balance is likely to be negative.

Said, in another way there is no beggar-thy-neighbor-effect. In fact is anything monetary easing in Japan is likely to boost exports to Japan rather than the opposite.

I am sure that Bennett’s papers also in the future will inspire me to write blog posts on different topics as anybody who follow my blog knows it has done in the past – even when I don’t realize myself to begin with. Until then I suggest to my readers that you take a look at Bennett’s 2003 paper. It will teach you quite a bit about what is happening in Japan a decade after Bennett wrote the paper.

Fiscal devaluation – a terrible idea that will never work

Maybe I am ignorant, but until recently I had never heard of the concept “fiscal devaluation” (at least not that term), but I fear it could be an idea that could have considerable political appeal, but as I understand the idea it smells of protectionism and the idea is based on a mis-diagnosing the reasons for the present crisis – particularly in the euro zone.

What is a “fiscal devaluation”?

The idea behind fiscal devaluations is that a nation can improve it’s competitiveness by basically “twisting” taxes by cutting payroll taxes and finance it by increasing VAT.

The idea is not new. Already back in 1931 John Maynard Keynes suggested a VAT style tariff on all imported goods plus a uniform subsidy on all exports. In 2011 the idea was re-introduced by Gita Gopinath, Emmanuel Farhi and Oleg Itskhoki in their paper “Fiscal Devaluations”.

I will not go through the paper (and it the idea I want to discuss rather than the specific paper), but rather discuss why I find the idea terrible and why I think it will not achieve any of the results suggested by it’s proponents.

Fiscal devaluation is protectionism

The first thing that came to my mind when I heard the description of a fiscal devaluation was that this is basically a typically 1930s style protectionist idea: Tax imports and subsidies exports. Anybody who have studied economics should know that protectionism is extremely negative for everybody and such protectionist ideas will lower the economic welfare of the country that introduces the protectionist measures and of other countries. Only fools advocate protectionism.

Furthermore, I am completely unaware of any countries that came out of the Great Depression through a fiscal devaluation, but I know of many countries that tried. This is an idea that have been tried before and failed before. So why try it again? However, I can easily find numerous examples of countries that have undertaken proper (monetary) devaluations and have succeed. The UK and the “Sterling bloc” in 1931, the US in 1933, Sweden in 1992 and Argentina in 2002. The list is much longer…

The point is that a fiscal devaluation is negative sum game – it hurts everybody – while a monetary devaluation is a positive sum game if the world is caught in a quasi-deflationary environment as has been the case for the last 4-5 years. As I have stress before a monetary devaluation is not a hostile act – a fiscal devaluation certainly is.

Mis-diagnosing the problem

A key problem for the Fiscal devaluationists in my view is that they mis-diagnose the problem in for example South Europe as a problem of competitiveness rather than a problem of weak domestic demand. In that sense it is paradoxical that origin of the idea comes from Keynes.

It might of course be that South Europe has a competitiveness problem in the sense that the real exchange rate is “overvalued”. However, competitiveness does not determine aggregate demand. The real exchange rate determines the composition of aggregate demand, but not the aggregate demand. Aggregate demand is determined by monetary policy. And the lack of aggregate demand is Greece’s (and the other PIIGS’) real problem. The euro crisis is not a competitiveness problem, but a NGDP crisis.

Countries with fixed exchange rates or countries – like Spain or Portugal – that are in currency unions are not able to ease monetary policy as the have “outsourced” their monetary policy – in the case of Spain and Portugal to the ECB. A fiscal devaluation is unable to ease monetary policy – at the most it can only “twist” demand from domestic demand to exports (…there is a small aber dabei – see PPS below). In that sense a fiscal devaluation is mercantilist idea – an idea that exports in some way is “better” than domestic demand.

However, artificially twisting demand from domestic demand reduces the international division of labour. It might be that Keynes or the average German policy maker think that is a great idea, but Adam Smith and David Ricardo are spinning in their graves.

There is only one way out of a quasi-deflationary trap – monetary easing

For countries caught in a quasi-deflationary trap – as the South European countries – a fiscal devaluation might temporarily improve external balances, but it will not do anything about the deflationary pressures. There are only two options for these countries – either they leave the euro or the ECB ease monetary conditions.

Lower taxes is great for long-run growth – twisting taxes is mostly a waste of time

Finally I would like to stress that I in no way is arguing against lowering payroll taxes. However, the purpose of lowering payroll taxes should not be to increase export, but to remove a tax wedge that lowers employment. Lower payroll taxes very likely will increase the level of potential GDP (but not impact nominal GDP). Furthermore, I doubt that higher VAT would be beneficial to any country in the world. Even worse if the central bank – like the ECB – targets headline CPI-inflation then higher VAT rates will temporarily increase headline inflation and that could trigger a monetary tightening. If you think that is alarmist – then just think about what happened when a number of euro zone countries started to increase indirect taxes in 2010-11 at the same time oil prices spiked. The ECB hiked interest rates twice in 2011!

Reading recommendation for policy makers

Concluding, fiscal devaluation is a terrible idea and we should call it what it is – protectionism – and any policy maker out there who is tempted by these ideas should carefully study the experience of the 1930s. The best way to learn about the serious welfare cost of this sort of ideas is to read Doug Irwin’s excellent little book Trade Policy Disaster.

In his book Doug clearly shows that fiscal devaluation style measures never worked but helped escalate trade wars while proper monetary devaluations helped countries like the US, the UK and Sweden get out of the Great Depression.

You could also read Chapter 10 in Larry White’s great book Clashes of Economic Ideas. In that chapter Larry explains the disaster that was economic policy in India in the first 4-5 decades after Indian independence in 1947. India of course pursued (and to a large extent still do) the kind of policies that the fiscal devaluationistists advocate. The result of course was decades of lacklustre growth.

So before policy makers are tempted by protectionist ideas packaged in modern New Keynesian models they should study history and then they should realize that “fiscal devaluation” is terrible idea that will never work.

PS Maybe it is not a surprise that the French government – yes the government that introduced a 75% marginal income tax (!) – find a fiscal devaluation attractive.

PPS I write above that improving competitiveness cannot ease monetary conditions. That is not entirely right as anybody who knows Hume’s traditional price-specie-flow mechanism would acknowledge, but that is at best a very indirect channel and is very unlikely to be very powerful. In fact there has been a quite drastic improvement in external balance in some of the PIIGS, but none of these economies are exactly booming.

Update: Doug Irwin tells me that Joan Robinson used to called ideas like a fiscal devaluation “Silly clever”.  I think it is an excellent term – from time to time you will see economic papers that are overly mathematical and complex that come up with answers that are a result of certain (random?) model assumptions that gives anti-economic results. I am afraid silly clever has become fashionable and certain academic economists.

Update 2: My friend David Glasner just wrote a blog post addressing a similar topic – competitive devaluations – we reach very similar conclusions. I love David’s Ralph Hawtrey quote on competitive devaluation – it is very similar to what I argue above.

The Czech interest rate fallacy and exchange rates

For many years Ludek Niedermayer was deputy central bank governor of the Czech central bank (CNB). Ludek did an outstanding job at the CNB where he was a steady hand on CNB’s board for many years. I have known Ludek for a number of years and I do consider him a good friend.

However, we often disagree – particularly about the importance of money. This is an issue we debate whenever we see each other – and I don’t think either of us find it boring. Unfortunately I have so far failed to convince Ludek.

Now it seems we have yet another reason to debate. The issue is over the impact of currency devaluation and the monetary transmission mechanism.

The Czech economy is doing extremely bad and it to me is pretty obvious that the economy is caught in a deflationary trap. The CNB’s key policy rate is close to zero and that is so far limiting the CNB from doing more monetary easing despite the very obvious need for monetary easing – no growth, disinflationary pressures, declining money-velocity and a fairly strong Czech koruna. However, the CNB seems nearly paralyzed. Among other things because the majority of CNB board members seem to think that monetary policy is already easy because interest rates are already very low.

What the majority on the CNB board fail to understand is of course that interest rates are low exactly because the economy is in such a slump. The majority on the CNB board members are guilty of what Milton Friedman called the “interest rate fallacy”.  As Friedman said in 1997:

“After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.”

Looking at the Czech economy makes it pretty clear that monetary policy is not easy. If monetary policy was easy then property prices would not be declining and nominal GDP would not be contracting. If monetary policy was easy then inflation would be rising – it is not.

It therefore obvious that the Czech economy desperately needs monetary easing and since interest rates are already close to zero it is obvious that the CNB needs to use other instruments to ease monetary policy. To me the most obvious and simplest way to ease monetary policy in the present situation would be to use the exchange rate channel. The CNB should simply buy foreign currency to weaken the Czech koruna until a certain nominal target is met – for example bringing back the level of the GDP deflator back to its pre-crisis trend. The best way to do this would be to set a temporary target on Czech koruna against the euro – in a similar fashion as the Swiss central bank has done – until the given nominal target is reached. This is what Lars E. O. Svensson – now deputy governor of the Swedish central bank – has called the foolproof way out of deflation.

CNB governor Miroslav Singer seems to be open to this option. Here is what he said in a recent interview with the Czech business paper Hospodarske Noviny (my translation – with help from Czech friends and Google translate…):

“We talked about it in the central bank’s board about what the central bank can buy and put the money into circulation. What all can lend and – in extreme case – we can simply hand out money to citizens. Something that is sometimes referred to as “throwing money from a helicopter.” If it really was needed, it seems to be the easiest to move the exchange rate. It is logical for the country, which exports the products of eighty per cent of its GDP. If we felt that in our country there is a long deflationary pressures, the obvious way to deal with it is through a weakening currency.”

It should be stressed that I am slightly paraphrasing Singer’s comments, but the meaning is clear – governor Singer full well knows that monetary policy works and I certain agree with him on this issue. Unfortunately my good friend Ludek Niedermayer to some extent disagrees.

Here is Ludek in the same article:

“It would mean leaving a floating exchange rate and our trading partners would be able to complain, that we in this way supports our own exports”

Ludek here seems to argue that the way a weakening of the koruna only works through a “competitiveness channel” – in fact governor Singer seems to have the same view. However, as I have so often argued the primary channel by which a devaluation works is through the impact on domestic demand through increased inflation expectations (or rather less deflationary expectations) and an increase in the money base rather than through the competitiveness channel.

Let’s assume that the CNB tomorrow announced that it would set a new target for EUR/CZK at 30 – versus around 24.90 today (note this is an example and not a forecast). Obviously this would help Czech exports, but much more importantly it would be a signal to Czech households and companies that the CNB will not allow the Czech economy to sink further into a deflationary slump. This would undoubtedly lead households and companies to reduce their cash reserves that they are holding now.

In other words a committed and sizable devaluation to the Czech koruna would lead to a sharp drop in demand for Czech koruna – and for a given money supply this would effectively be aggressive monetary easing. This will push up money-velocity. Furthermore, as the CNB is buying foreign currency it is effectively expanding the money supply. With higher money supply growth and higher velocity nominal GDP will expand and with sticky prices and wages and a large negative output gap this would likely also increase real GDP.

This would be similarly to what happened for example in Poland and Sweden in 2008-9, where a weakening of the zloty and the Swedish krona supported domestic demand. Hence, the relatively strong performance of the Swedish and the Polish economies in 2009-10 were due to strong domestic demand rather than strong exports. Again, the exchange rate channel is not really about competitiveness, but about boosting domestic demand through higher money supply growth and higher velocity.

The good news is that the CNB is not out of ammunition and it is similarly good news that the CNB governor Singer full well knows this. The bad news is that he might not have convinced the majority on the CNB board about this. In that sense the CNB is not different from most central banks in the world – bubble fears dominates while deflationary risks are ignored. Sad, but true.

PS I strongly recommend for anybody who can read Czech – or can use Google translate – to read the entire interview with Miroslav Singer. Governor Singer fully well understands that he is not out of ammunition – that is a refreshing view from a European central banker.

Related posts:

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons
Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
The dangers of targeting CPI rather than the GDP deflator – the case of the Czech Republic
Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

One of the great things about blogging is that people comment on your posts and thereby challenge your views and at the same time create new ideas for blog posts. Therefore I want to thank commentator Max for the following response to my previous post:

“I don’t think exchange rate intervention is a good idea for a large country. For one thing, it’s a hostile act given that other countries have exactly the same issue. And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.” 

Let me start out by saying that Max is wrong on both accounts, but I would also acknowledge that both views are more or less the “consensus” view of devaluations and my view – which is based on the monetary approach to balance of payments and exchange rates – is the minority view. Let me address the two issues separately.

Is monetary easing a hostile act?

In his comment Max describes a devaluation as a hostile act towards other countries. This is a very common view and it is often said that it is a reflection of a beggar-thy-neighbour policy for a country to devalue its currency. I have two comments on that.

First, if a devaluation is a hostile act then all forms of monetary easing are hostile acts as any form of monetary easing is likely to lead to a weakening of the currency. Let’s for example assume that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would buy unlimited amounts of US equities and it would continue to do so until US nominal GDP had increased 15%. I am pretty sure that would lead to a massive weakening of the US dollar. In fact we can basically define monetary easing as a situation where the supply of the currency is increased relative to the demand for the currency. Said, in another way if the currency weakens it is a pretty good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier.

Second, I have often argued that the impact of a devaluation does not primarily work through an improvement in the country’s competitiveness. In fact the purpose of the devaluation should be to increase prices (and wages) and hence nominal GDP. An increase in prices and wages can hardly be said to be an improvement of competitiveness. It is correct that if prices and wages are sticky then you might get an initial real depreciation of the currency, however that impact is not really important compared to the monetary impact. Hence, a devaluation will lead to an increase in the money supply (that is how you engineer the devaluation) and likely also to an increase in money-velocity as inflation expectations increase. Empirically that is much more important than any possible competitiveness effect.

A good example of how the monetary effect dominates the competitiveness effect: the Argentine devaluation in 2002 actually led to a deterioration of the Argentine trade balance and what really was the driver of the recovery was the sharp pickup in domestic demand due to an increase in the money supply and money-velocity rather than an improvement in exports. See my previous comment on the episode here. When the US gave up the gold standard in 1933 the story was the same – the monetary effect strongly dominated the competitiveness effect.

Yet another example of the monetary effect of a devaluation dominating the competitiveness effect is Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9. It is a common misunderstanding that Sweden grew stronger than Denmark in 2008-9 because a sharp depreciation of the Swedish krona led to a massive improvement in competitiveness. It is correct that Swedish competitiveness was improved due to the weakening of the krona, but this was not the main reason for Sweden’s relatively fast recovery from the crisis. The real reason was that Sweden did not see any substantial decline in money-velocity and the Swedish money supply grew relatively steadily through the crisis.

Looking at Swedish exports in 2008-9 it is very hard to spot any advantage from the depreciation of the krona. In fact Swedish exports did more or less as badly as Danish exports in 2008-9 despite the fact that the Danish krone did not depreciate due to Denmark’s fixed exchange rate regime. However, looking at domestic demand there was a much sharper contraction in Danish private consumption and investment than was the case in Sweden. This difference can easily be explained by the sharp monetary contraction in Denmark in 2008-9 (both a drop in M and V).

Furthermore, let’s assume that the Federal Reserve announced massive intervention in the FX market to weaken the US dollar and the result was a sharp increase in US nominal GDP. Would the rest of the world be worse off? I doubt it. Yes, the likely impact would be that for example German exports would get under pressure as the euro would strengthen dramatically against the dollar. However, nothing would stop the ECB from also undertaking monetary easing to counteract the strengthening of the euro. This is what somebody calls “competitive devaluations” or even “currency war”. However, in a deflationary environment such “currency war” should be welcomed as it basically would be a competition to print money. Hence, the “net result” of currency war would not be any change in competitiveness, but an increase in the global money supply (and global money-velocity) and hence in global nominal GDP. Who would be against that and in a situation where the global economy continues to contract and as such a currency war like that would be very welcomed news. In fact we can not really talk about a “war” as it would be mutually beneficial. So I say please bring on the currency war!

Is global monetary cooperation needed? No, but…

This brings us to Max’s second argument: “And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.

This is obviously related to the discussion above. Max seems to think a devaluation will not work if it is met by “competitive devaluations” from all other countries. As I have argued above this is completely wrong. It would work as the devaluation will increase the money supply and money-velocity even if the devaluation has no impact on competitiveness at all. As a result there is no need for international monetary cooperation. In fact healthy competition among currencies is exactly what we need. In fact every time the major nations of the world have gotten together to agree on realigning exchange rates it has had major negative consequences.

However, there is one argument for international coordination that I think is extremely important and that is the need for cooperation to avoid “competitive protectionism”. The problem is that most global policy makers perceive devaluations in the same way as Max. They see devaluations as hostile acts and therefore these policy makers might react to devaluations by introducing trade tariffs and other protectionist measures. This is what happened in the 1930s where especially the (foolish) countries which maintained the gold standard reacted by introducing trade tariffs against for example the UK and the Scandinavian countries, which early on gave up the gold standard.

Unfortunately Mitt Romney seems to think as Max

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has said that his first act as US president would be to slap tariffs on China for being a “currency manipulator”. Here is what Romney recently said:

“If I’m president, I will label China a currency manipulator and apply tariffs” wherever needed “to stop them from unfair trade practices”

The discussion above should show clearly that Romney’s comments on China’s currency policy is economically meaningless – or rather extremely dangerous. Imagine what would be the impact on the US economy if China tomorrow announced a 40% (just to pick a number) revaluation of the yuan. To engineer this the People’s Bank of China would have to cause a sharp contraction in the Chinese money supply and money-velocity. The result would undoubtedly throw China into a massive recession – or more likely a depression. You can only wonder what that would do to US exports to China and to US employment. Obviously this would be massively negative for the US economy.

Furthermore, a sharp appreciation of the yuan would effectively be a massive negative supply shock to the US economy as US import prices would skyrocket. Given the present (wrongful) thinking of the Federal Reserve, that might even trigger monetary tightening as US inflation would pick up. In other words the US might face stagflation and I am pretty sure that Romney would have no friends left on Wall Street if that where to happen and he would certainly not be reelected in four years.

I hope that Romney has some economic advisors that realize the insanity of forcing China to a massive appreciation of the yuan. Unfortunately I do not have high hope that there is an understanding of these issues in today’s Republican Party – as it was the case in 1930 when two Republican lawmakers Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored the draconian and very damaging Smoot-Hawley tariff act.

Finally, thanks to Max for your comments. I hope you appreciate that I do not think that you would like the same kind of protectionist policies as Mitt Romney, but I do think that when we get it wrong on the monetary impact of devaluations we might end up with the kind of policy response that Mitt Romney is suggesting. And no, this is no endorsement of President Obama – I think my readers fully understand that. Furthermore to Max, I do appreciate your comments even though I disagree on this exact topic.

PS if you want to learn more about the policy dynamics that led to Smoot-Hawley you should have a look at Doug Irwin’s great little book “Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression”.

Update: Scott Sumner has a similar discussion of the effects of devaluation.

Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons

I think Rob who is one my readers hit the nail on the head when he in a recent comment commented that one of the things that is clearly differentiating Market Monetarism from other schools is our view of the monetary transmission mechanism. In my reply to his comment I promised Rob to write more on the MM view of the monetary transmission mechanism. I hope this post will do exactly that.

It is well known that Market Monetarists see a significantly less central role for interest rates in the monetary transmission mechanism than New Keynesians (and traditional Keynesians) and Austrians. As traditional monetarists we believe that monetary policy works through numerous channels and that the interest rate channel is just one such channel (See here for a overview of some of these channels here).

A channel by which monetary policy also works is the exchange rate channel. It is well recognised by most economists that a weakening of a country’s currency can boost the country’s nominal GDP (NGDP) – even though most economists would focus on real GDP and inflation rather than at NGDP. However, in my view the general perception about how a weakening the currency impacts the economy is often extremely simplified.

The “normal” story about the exchange rate-transmission mechanism is that a weakening of the currency will lead to an improvement of the country’s competitiveness (as it – rightly – is assumed that prices and wages are sticky) and that will lead to an increase in exports and a decrease in imports and hence increase net exports and in traditional keynesian fashion this will in real GDP (and NGDP). I do not disagree that this is one way that an exchange rate depreciation (or devaluation) can impact RGDP and NGDP. However, in my view the competitiveness channel is far from the most important channel.

I would point to two key effects of a devaluation of a currency. One channel impacts the money supply (M) and the other the velocity of money (V). As we know MV=PY=NGDP this should also make it clear that exchange rates changes can impact NGDP via M or V.

Lets start out in a economy where NGDP is depressed and expectations about the future growth of NGDP is subdued. This could be Japan in the late 1990s or Argentina in 2001 – or Greece today for that matter.

If the central bank today announces that it has devalued the country’s currency by 50% then that would have numerous impacts on expectations. First of all, inflation expectations would increase dramatically (if the announcement is unexpected) as higher import prices likely will be push up inflation, but also because – and more important – the expectation to the future path of NGDP would change and the expectations for money supply growth would change. Take Argentina in 2001. In 2001 the Argentinian central bank was dramatically tightening monetary conditions to maintain the pegged peso rate against the US dollar. This send a clear signal that the authorities was willing to accept a collapse in NGDP to maintain the currency board. Naturally that lead consumers and investors to expect a further collapse in NGDP – expectations basically became deflationary.  However, once the the peg was given up inflation and NGDP expectations spiked. With the peso collapsing the demand for (peso) cash dropped dramatically – hence money demand dropped, which of course in the equation of exchange is the same as an increase in money-velocity. With V spiking and assuming (to begin with) that  the money supply is unchanged NGDP should by definition increase as much as the increase in V. This is the velocity-effect of a devaluation. In the case of Argentina it should of course be noted that the devaluation was not unexpected so velocity started to increase prior to the devaluation and the expectations of a devaluation grew.

Second, in the case of Argentina where the authorities basically “outsourced” the money policy to the Federal Reserve by pegging the peso the dollar. Hence, the Argentine central bank could not independently increase the money supply without giving up the peg. In fact in 2001 there was a massive currency outflow, which naturally lead to a sharp drop in the Argentine FX reserve. In a fixed exchange rate regime it follows that any drop in the foreign currency reserve must lead to an equal drop in the money base. This is exactly what happened in Argentina. However, once the peg was given up the central bank was free to increase the money base. With M increasing (and V increasing as argued above) NGDP would increase further. This is the money supply-effect of a devaluation.

The very strong correlation between Argentine M2 and NGDP can be seen in the graph below (log-scale Index).

I believe that the combined impact of velocity and money supply effects empirically are much stronger than the competitiveness effect devaluation – especially for countries in a deflationary or quasi-deflationary situation like Argentina was in in 2001. This is also strongly confirmed by what happened in Argentina from 2002 and until 2005-7.

This is from Mark Weisbrot’s and Luis Sandoval’s 2007-paper on “Argentina’s economic recovery”:

“However, relatively little of Argentina’s growth over the last five years (2002-2007) is a result of exports or of the favorable prices of Argentina’s exports on world markets. This must be emphasized because the contrary is widely believed, and this mistaken assumption has often been used to dismiss the success or importance of the recovery, or to cast it as an unsustainable “commodity export boom…

During this period (The first six months following the devaluation in 2002) exports grew at a 6.7 percent annual rate and accounted for 71.3 percent of GDP growth. Imports dropped by more than 28 percent and therefore accounted for 167.8 percent of GDP growth during this period. Thus net exports (exports minus imports) accounted for 239.1 percent of GDP growth during the first six months of the recovery. This was countered mainly by declining consumption, with private consumption falling at a 5.0 percent annual rate.

But exports did not play a major role in the rest of the recovery after the first six months. The next phase of the recovery, from the third quarter of 2002 to the second quarter of 2004, was driven by private consumption and investment, with investment growing at a 41.1 percent annual rate during this period. Growth during the third phase of the recovery – the three years ending with the second half of this year – was also driven mainly by private consumption and investment… However, in this phase exports did contribute more than in the previous period, accounting for about 16.2 percent of growth; although imports grew faster, resulting in a negative contribution for net exports. Over the entire recovery through the first half of this year, exports accounted for about 13.6 percent of economic growth, and net exports (exports minus imports) contributed a negative 10.9 percent.

The economy reached its pre-recession level of real GDP in the first quarter of 2005. As of the second quarter this year, GDP was 20.8 percent higher than this previous peak. Since the beginning of the recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has grown by 50.9 percent, averaging 8.2 percent annually. All this is worth noting partly because Argentina’s rapid expansion is still sometimes dismissed as little more than a rebound from a deep recession.

…the fastest growing sectors of the economy were construction, which increased by 162.7 percent during the recovery; transport, storage and communications (73.4 percent); manufacturing (64.4 percent); and wholesale and retail trade and repair services (62.7 percent).

The impact of this rapid and sustained growth can be seen in the labor market and in household poverty rates… Unemployment fell from 21.5 percent in the first half of 2002 to 9.6 percent for the first half of 2007. The employment-to-population ratio rose from 32.8 percent to 43.4 percent during the same period. And the household poverty rate fell from 41.4 percent in the first half of 2002 to 16.3 percent in the first half of 2007. These are very large changes in unemployment, employment, and poverty rates.”

Hence, the Argentine example clearly confirms the significant importance of monetary effects in the transmission of a devaluation to NGDP (and RGDP for that matter) and at the same time shows that the competitiveness effect is rather unimportant in the big picture.

There are other example out there (there are in fact many…). The US recovery after Roosevelt went of the gold standard in 1933 is exactly the same story. It was not an explosion in exports that sparked the sharp recovery in the US economy in the summer of 1933, but rather the massive monetary easing that resulted from the increase in M and V. This lesson obviously is important when we today are debate whether for example Greece would benefit from leaving the euro area or whether one or another country should maintain a pegged exchange rate regime.

A bit on Danish 1970s FX policy

In my home country of Denmark it is often noted that the numerous devaluations of the Danish krone in the 1970s completely failed to do anything good for the Danish economy and that that proves that devaluations are bad under all circumstances. The Danish example, however, exactly illustrate the problem with the “traditional” perspective on devaluations. Had Danish policy makers instead had an monetary approach to exchange rate policy in 1970s then the policies that would have been implemented would have been completely different.

Denmark – as many other European countries – was struggling with stagflation in the 1970s – both inflation and unemployment was high. Any monetarist would tell you (as Friedman did) that this was a result of a negative supply shock (and general structural problems) combined with overly loose monetary policy. The Danish government by devaluating the krone (again and again…) tried to improve competitiveness and thereby bring down unemployment. However, the high level of unemployment was not due to lack of demand, but rather due to supply side problems. The Danish economy was not in a deflationary trap, but rather in a stagflationary trap. That is the reason the devaluations did not “work” – well it worked perfectly well in terms of increasing inflation, but it did not bring down unemployment as the problem was not lack of demand (contrary to what is the case most places in Europea and the US today).

Conclusion – it’s not about competitiveness

So to conclude, the most important channels of exchange rate policy is monetary – the velocity effect and the money supply – the competitiveness effect is nearly as irrelevant as interest rates is. Countries that suffer from too tight monetary policy can ease monetary policy by announcing a credible devaluation or by letting the currency float. Argentina is a clear example of that. Countries that suffer from supply side problems – like Denmark in 1970s – can not solve the fundamental problems by devaluation.

PS the discussion above is not an endorsement of general economic policy in Argentina after 2001, but only meant as an illustration of the exchange rate channel for monetary policy. Neither is it an recommendation concerning what country XYZ should should do in terms of monetary and exchange rate policy today.

PPS Obviously Scott would remind us that the above discussion is just a variation of what Lars E. O. Svensson is telling us about the fool proof way out of a liquidity trap…

Update – some related posts:

The Chuck Norris effect, Swiss lessons and a (not so) crazy idea
Repeating a (not so) crazy idea – or if Chuck Norris was ECB chief
Argentine lessons for Greece

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