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Listen to my new hero Jose Dario Uribe

The turmoil in the Emerging Markets currencies markets continues. Most EM central bankers seem to be very scared by the continued sell-off in Emerging Markets and central banks around the world have moved to hike interest rates and have intervened to curb the weakening of the Emerging Markets sell-off. This means that most EM central banks effectively are tightening monetary policy in response to a negative external demand shock. This is hardly wise in my view.

However, it is not all EM central bankers who suffer from a fear-of-floating. Hence, today the Colombian peso came under pressure after Colombian central bank governor Jose Dario Uribe said the weakening of the peso is “something we view as positive.”  Uribe added that the central bank had “enormous” margin to allow the peso to weaken as inflation continue to be well-below the central bank’s 3% inflation.

Furthermore, it should be noted that given the down-trend in commodity prices Colombian export prices are coming under pressure. Hence, from an Export Price Norm perspective a weakening of the peso is justified from a policy perspective to ensure a stable development in nominal spending.

In recent years the Colombian economy has been a major success story due to significant economy reforms, privatizations and fiscal consolidation. Luckily monetary policy also seems to support the continued positive development in the Colombian economy.

It will be interesting to follow the development in the Colombian economy – where the central bankers seem to understand the value of a floating exchange rate regime – relative to other countries – such as Turkey – where central bankers fear floating exchange rates. Is Colombia the new Australia? And is Turkey the new New Zealand. (See here on Australia and New Zealand in 1997).

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Indian superstar economists, Egyptian (not so liberal!) dictators, the Great Deceleration and Taliban banking regulation – Some more unfocused musings

While the vacation is over for the Christensen family I have decided to continue with my unfocused musings. I am not sure how much I will do of this kind of thing in the future, but it means that I will write a bit more about other things than just monetary issues. My blog will still primarily be about money, but my readers seem to be happy that I venture into other areas as well from time to time. So that is what I will do.

Two elderly Indian economists and the most interesting debate in economics today

In recent weeks an very interesting war of words has been playing out between the two giants of Indian economic thinking – Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. While I don’t really think that they two giants have been behaving themselves in a gentlemanly fashion the debate it is nonetheless an extremely interesting and the topic the are debate – how to increase the growth potential of the Indian economy – is highly relevant not only for India but also for other Emerging Markets that seem to have entered a “Great Deceleration” (see below).

While Bhagwati has been arguing in favour of a free market model Sen seems to want a more “Scandinavian” development model for India with bigger government involvement in the economy. I think my readers know that I tend to agree with Bhagwati here and in that regard I will also remind the readers that the high level of income AND the high level of equality in Scandinavia were created during a period where all of the Scandinavian countries had rather small public sectors. In fact until the mid-1960s the role of government in Scandinavia was more limited than even in the US at the same time.

Anyway, I would recommend to anybody interested in economic development to follow the Bhagwati-Sen debate.
Nupur Acharya has a good summery of the debate so and provides some useful links. See here.

By the way this is Bhagwati’s new book – co-authored with Arvind Panagariya.

Bhagwati

The Economics of Superstar Economists

Both Bhagwati and Sen are what we call Superstar economists. Other superstar economists are people like Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman. Often these economists are also bloggers. I could also mention Nouriel Roubini as a superstar economist.

I have been thinking about this concept for a while  and have come to the conclusion that superstar economists is the real deal and are extremely important in today’s public debate about economics. They may or may not be academics, but the important feature is that they have an extremely high public profile and are very well-paid for sharing their views on everything – even on topics they do not necessarily have much real professional insight about (yes, Krugman comes to mind).

In 1981 Sherwin Rosen wrote an extremely interesting article on the topic of The Economic of Superstars. Rosen’s thesis is that superstars – whether in sports, cultural, media or the economics profession for that matter earn a disproportional high income relative to their skills. While, economists or actors with skills just moderately below the superstar level earn significantly less than the superstars.

I think this phenomenon is increasingly important in the economics profession. That is not to say that there has not been economic superstars before – Cassel and Keynes surely were superstars of their time and so was Milton Friedman, but I doubt that they were able to make the same kind of money that Paul Krugman is today.  What do you think?

The Great Deceleration – 50% structural, 50% monetary

The front page of The Economist rarely disappoints. This week is no exception. The front page headline (on the European edition) is “The Great Deceleration” and it is about the slowdown in the BRIC economies.

I think the headline is very suiting for a trend playing out in the global economy today – the fact that many or actually most Emerging Markets economies are loosing speed – decelerating. While the signs of continued recovery in the developed economies particularly the US and Japan are clear.

The Economist rightly asks the question whether the slowdown is temporary or more permanent. The answer from The Economist is that it is a bit of both. And I agree.

There is no doubt that particularly monetary tightening in China is an extremely important factor in the continued slowdown in Emerging Markets growth – and as I have argued before China’s role as monetary superpower is rather important.

However, it is also clear that many Emerging Markets are facing structural headwinds – such as negative demographics (China, Russia and most of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe), renewed “Regime Uncertainty” (Egypt, Turkey and partly South Africa) and old well-known structural problems (for example the protectionism of India and Brazil).  Maybe it would be an idea for policy makers in Emerging Markets to read Bhagwati and Panagariya’s new book or even better Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital – Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else”

Egypt – so much for “liberal dictators”

While vacationing I wrote a bit Hayek’s concept of the “liberal dictator” and how that relates to events in Egypt (see here and here). While I certainly think that the concept a liberal dictatorship is oxymoronic to say the least I do acknowledge that there are examples in history of dictators pursuing classical liberal economic reforms – Pinochet in Chile is probably the best known example – but in general I think the idea that a man in uniform ever are going to push through liberal reforms is pretty far-fetched. That is certainly also the impression one gets by following events in Egypt. Just see this from AFP:

With tensions already running high three weeks after the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for demonstrations raises the prospect of further deadly violence.

…Sisi made his unprecedented move in a speech broadcast live on state television.

“Next Friday, all honourable Egyptians must take to the street to give me a mandate and command to end terrorism and violence,” said the general, wearing dark sunglasses as he addressed a military graduation ceremony near Alexandria.

You can judge for yourself, but I am pretty skeptical that this is going to lead to anything good – and certainly not to (classical) liberal reforms.

Just take a look at this guy – is that the picture of a reformer? I think not.

Dictator

Banking regulation and the Taliban

Vince Cable undoubtedly is one of the most outspoken and colourful ministers in the UK government. This is what he earlier this week had to say in an interview with Finance Times about Bank of England and banking regulation:

“One of the anxieties in the business community is that the so called ‘capital Taliban’ in the Bank of England are imposing restrictions which at this delicate stage of recovery actually make it more difficult for companies to operate and expand.”

While one can certainly question Mr. Cable’s wording it is hard to disagree that the aggressive tightening of capital requirements by the Bank of England is hampering UK growth. Or rather if one looks at tighter capital requirements on banks then it is effectively an tax on production of “private” money. In that sense tighter capital requirements are counteracting the effects of the quantitative easing undertaken by the BoE. Said in another way – the tight capital requirements the more quantitative easing is needed to hit the BoE’s nominal targets.

That is not to say that there are not arguments for tighter capital requirements particularly if one fears that banks that get into trouble in the future “automatically” will be bailed out by the taxpayers and the system so to speak is prone to moral hazard. Hence, higher capital requirements in that since is a “second best” to a strict no-bailout regime.

However, the tightening of capital requirements clearly is badly timed given the stile very fragile recovery in the UK economy. Therefore, I think that the Bank of England – if it wants to go ahead with tightening capital requirements – should link this the performance of the UK economy. Hence, the BoE should pre-annonce that mandatory capital and liquidity ratios for UK banks and financial institutions in general will dependent on the level of nominal GDP. So as the economy recovers capital and liquidity ratios are gradually increased and if there is a new setback in economy capital and liquidity ratios will automatically be reduced. This would put banking regulation in sync with the broader monetary policy objectives in the UK.

 

The Compensated dollar and monetary policy in small open economies

It is Christmas time and I am spending time with the family so it is really not the time for blogging, but just a little note about something I have on my mind – Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan and how it might be useful in today’s world – especially for small open economies.

I am really writing on a couple of other blog posts at the moment that I will return to in the coming days and weeks, but Irving Fisher is hard to let go of. First of all I need to finalise my small series on modern US monetary history through the lens of Quasi-Real Indexing and then I am working on a post on bubbles (that might in fact turn into a numbers of posts). So stay tuned for these posts.

Back to the Compensated dollar plan. I have always been rather skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes even though I acknowledge that they have worked well in some countries and at certain times. My dislike of fixed exchange rates originally led me to think that then one should advocate floating exchange rates and I certainly still think that a free floating exchange rate regime is much preferable to a fixed exchange rate regime for a country like the US. However, the present crisis have made me think twice about floating exchange rates – not because I think floating exchange rates have done any harm in this crisis. Countries like Sweden, Australia, Canada, Poland and Turkey have all benefitted a great deal from having floating exchange rates in this crisis. However, exchange rates are really the true price of money (or rather the relative price of monies). Unlike the interest rate which is certainly NOT – contrary to popular believe – the price of money. Therefore, if we want to change the price of money then the most direct way to do that is through the exchange rate.

As a consequence I also come to think that variations of Fisher’s proposal could be an idea for small open economies – especially as these countries typically have less developed financial markets and due to financial innovation – in especially Emerging Markets – have a hard time controlling the domestic money supply. Furthermore, a key advantage of using the exchange rate to conduct monetary policy is that there is no “lower zero bound” on the exchange rate as is the case with interest rates and the central bank can effectively “circumvent” the financial sector in the conduct of monetary policy – something which is likely to be an advantage when there is a financial crisis.

The Compensated dollar plan 

But lets first start out by revisiting Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. Irving Fisher first suggested the compensated dollar plan in 1911 in his book The Purchasing Power of Money. The idea is that the dollar (Fisher had a US perspective) should be fixed to the price of gold, but the price should be adjustable to ensure a stable level of purchasing power for the dollar (zero inflation). Fisher starts out by defining a price index (equal to what we today we call a consumer price index) at 100. Then Fisher defines the target for the central bank as 100 for this index – so if the index increases above 100 then monetary policy should be tightened – and vis-a-vis if the index drops. This is achieved by a proportional adjustment of  the US rate vis-a-vis the the gold prices. So it the consumer price index increase from 100 to 101 the central bank intervenes to strengthen the dollar by 1% against gold. Ideally – and in my view also most likely – this system will ensure stable consumer prices and likely provide significant nominal stability.

Irving Fisher campaigned unsuccessfully for his proposals for years and despite the fact that is was widely discussed it was not really given a chance anywhere. However, Sweden in the 1930s implemented a quasi-compensated dollar plan and as a result was able to stabilize Swedish consumer prices in the 1930s. This undoubtedly was the key reason why Sweden came so well through the Great Depression. I am very certain that had the US had a variation of the compensated dollar plan in place in 2008-9 then the crisis in the global economy wold have been much smaller.

Three reservations about the Compensated dollar plan

There is no doubt that the Compensated dollar plan fits well into Market Monetarist thinking. It uses market prices (the exchange rate and gold prices) in the conduct of monetary policy rather than a monetary aggregate, it is strictly ruled based and it ensures a strong nominal anchor.

From a Market Monetarists perspective I, however, have three reservations about the idea.

First, the plan is basically a price level targeting plan (with zero inflation) rather than a plan to target nominal spending/income (NGDP targeting). This is clearly preferable to inflation targeting, but nonetheless fails to differentiate between supply and demand inflation and as such still risk leading to misallocation and potential bubbles. This is especially relevant for Emerging Markets, which undergoes significant structural changes and therefore continuously is “hit” by a number of minor and larger supply shocks.

Second, the plan is based on a backward-looking target rather than on a forward-looking target – where is the price level today rather than where is the price level tomorrow? In stable times this is not a major problem, but in a time of shocks to the economy and the financial system this might become a problem. How big this problem is in reality is hard to say.

Finally third, the fact that the plan uses only one commodity price as an “anchor” might become a problem. As Robert Hall among other have argued it would be preferable to use a basket of commodities as an anchor instead and he has suggest the so-called ANCAP standard where the anchor is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood.

Exchange rate based NGDP targeting for small-open economies

If we take this reservations into account we get to a proposal for an exchange rate based NGDP target regime which I believe would be particularly suiting for small open economies and Emerging Markets. I have in an earlier post spelled out the proposal – so I am repeating myself here, but I think the idea is worth it.

My suggestion is that it the the small open economy (SOE) announces that it will peg a growth path for NGDP (or maybe for nominal wages as data might be faster available than NGDP data) of for example 5% a year and it sets the index at 100 at the day of the introduction of the new monetary regime. Instead of targeting the gold price it could choose to either to “peg” the currency against a basket of other currencies – for example the 3-4 main trading partners of the country – or against a basket of commodities (I would prefer the CRB index which is pretty closely correlated with global NGDP growth).

Thereafter the central bank should every month announce a monthly rate of depreciation/appreciation of the currency against the anchor for the coming 24-36 month in the same way as most central banks today announces interest rate decisions. The target of course would be to “hit” the NGDP target path within a certain period. The rule could be fully automatic or there could be allowed for some discretion within the overall framework. Instead of using historical NGDP the central bank naturally should use some forecast for NGDP (for example market consensus or the central bank’s own forecast).

It could be done, but will anybody dare?

Central bankers are conservative people and they don’t go around and change their monetary policy set-up on a daily basis. Nonetheless it might be time for central banks around the world to reconsider their current set-up as monetary policy far from having been successfully in recent years. I believe Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan is an excellent place to start and I have provided a (simple) proposal for how small-open economies might implement it.

Does China target NGDP?

Much of the debate about NGDP targeting in the blogosphere is about what the Federal Reserve should do. However, I think it is equally important to discuss and focus on what monetary regimes are preferable for other countries. I hope I will be able to increase the focus among Market Monetarists on monetary policy in other countries than the US.

Given that China is the second largest economy is the world it is somewhat surprising how little interest their is in Chinese monetary policy and especially in what are the key drivers of Chinese monetary policy. A working paper – “McCallum rule and Chinese monetary policy” – by Tuuli Koivu, Aaron Mehrotra and Riikka Nuutilainen from 2008 sheds more light on this important topic and Market Monetarists should be very interested in the results.

Here is the abstract:

“This paper evaluates the usefulness of a McCallum monetary policy rule based on money supply for maintaining price stability in mainland China. We examine whether excess money relative to rule-based values provides information that improves the forecasting of price developments. The results suggest that our monetary variable helps in predicting both consumer and corporate goods price inflation, but the results for consumer prices depend on the forecasting period. Nevertheless, growth of the Chinese monetary base has tracked the McCallum rule quite closely. Moreover, results using a structural vector autoregression suggest that our measure of excess money supply could be used to identify monetary policy shocks in the Chinese economy.”

Hence, according to the authors the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) follow a McCallum rule whereby they use the money base to hit a given target for growth in nominal GDP (NGDP).

This in my view is a highly interesting result and it is somewhat of a surprise that these empirical results have not gotten more attention – especially given China’s impressive economic performance in recent years. Furthermore, it would be extremely interesting to see how the results would look if they where updated to include the Great Recession period. I am sure there is lot of aspiring Market Monetarists out there who are getting ready to update these results…

The PBoC is certainly not conducting monetary policy in a transparent way and the Chinese financial markets remain overly regulated, but at least it seems like the PBoC got their money base control more or less right.

Please help Mr. Simor

He is a challenge for you all.

András Simor is governor of the Hungarian central bank (MNB). Next week he will meet with his colleagues in the MNB’s Monetary Council. They will make announcement on the monetary policy action. Mr. Simor needs your help because he is in a tricky situation.

The MNB’s operates an inflation-targeting regime with a 3% inflation target. It is not a 100% credible and the MNB has a rather unfortunate history of overshooting the inflation target. At the moment inflation continues to be slightly above the inflation target and most forecasts shows that even though inflation is forecasted to come down a bit it will likely stay elevated for some time to come. At the same time Hungarian growth is basically zero and the outlook for the wider European economy is not giving much hope for optimism.

With inflation likely to inch down and growth still very weak some might argue that monetary policy should be eased.

However, there is a reason why Mr. Simor is not likely to do this and that is his worries about the state of the Hungarian financial system. More than half of all household loans are in foreign currency – mostly in Swiss franc. Lately the Hungarian forint has been significantly weakened against the Swiss franc (despite the efforts of the Swiss central bank to stop the strengthening of the franc against the euro) and that is significantly increasing the funding costs for both Hungarian households and companies. Hence, for many the weakening of the forint feels like monetary tightening rather monetary easing and if Mr. Simor was to announce next week that he would be cutting interests to spur growth the funding costs for many households and companies would likely go up rather than down.

Mr. Simor is caught between a rock and a hard. Either he cuts interest rates and allows the forint to weaken further in the hope that can spur growth or he does nothing or even hike interest rates to strengthen the forint and therefore ease the pains of Swiss franc funding households and companies.

Mr. Simor does not have an easy job and unfortunately there is little he can do to make things better. Or maybe you have an idea?

PS The Hungarian government is not intent on helping out Mr. Simor in any way.

PPS When I started this blog I promised be less US centric than the other mainly US based Market Monetarist bloggers – I hope that his post is a reminder that I take that promise serious.

PPPS if you care to know the key policy rate in Hungary is 6%, but as you know interest rates are not really a good indicator of monetary policy “tightness”.

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