The high cost of currency (rouble) stability

This is from Reuters today:

“The Russian currency has opened higher Thursday, continuing its recovery from the biggest intraday drop since 1998 default on so-called ‘Black Tuesday’. The dollar was down 65 kopeks at the opening on the Moscow Exchange, while on the stock market, the dollar-denominated RTS index was up 6.5 percent. That’s was hours before President Vladimir Putin commenced his much-anticipated Q&A marathon, in which he’s expected to face tough economic questions about the ruble and turmoil in the financial markets. ….On Wednesday, the ruble jumped 6 percent against the US dollar to finish trading at 60.51 against the Greenback. On ‘Black Tuesday’ the ruble dipped to as low as 80 rubles against the US dollar and hit a threshold of 100 against the euro.”

So after a terrible start to the week the Russian rouble has stabilised over the past two days. However, the (temporary?) stabilisation of the rouble has not been for free. Far from it in fact. Just take a look at this story from ft.com also from today:

Russian banks are getting cautious about lending each other money, with the interest rate on three-month interbank loans hitting its highest since at least 2005. The three-month “mosprime” interbank lending rate has soared to 28.3 per cent, which is its highest since it hit its financial crisis peak of 27.6 in January 2009. The rate is also sharply higher than it reached on Wednesday – the day after the Central Bank of Russia hiked interest rates to 17 per cent to stem a plunge in the rouble – when it closed at 22.33. Stresses have been building in Russian economy because of Western sanctions and a sharp fall in the oil price But another reason for the mosprime spike is that Russian banks are unsure about the state of each other’s businesses. Russian bank customers have been rushing to withdraw their roubles out of their bank accounts and convert them to dollars or euros.

Hence, the rouble might have stabilised, but monetary conditions have been tightened dramatically. So the question is whether the benefits of a (more) stable rouble outweigh the costs of tighter monetary conditions?

We might get the answer by looking that the graph below. The consequence of higher interest rates in 2008-9 was a 10% contraction in real GDP. This week’s spike in money market rates is even bigger (and steeper) than the spike in rates in 2008-9. Is there any good reason why we should not expect a similar contraction in real GDP this time? I think not… MosPrime 3m RGDP

PS obviously I would be the first to acknowledge that money market rates is not the entire story about monetary contraction and money market rates are only used for illustrative purposes here. There are also some differences between 2008-9 and now, but it should nonetheless be noted that the recent drop in oil prices is similar to what we saw in 2008-9.

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Monetary sovereignty is incompatible with inflation targeting

When I started working in the financial sector nearly 15 years ago – after 5 years working for government – one thing that really puzzled me was how my new colleagues (both analysts and traders) where thinking about exchange rates.

As a fairly classically thinking economist I had learned to think of exchange rates in terms of the Purchasing Power Parity. After all why should we expect there to be a difference between the price of a Big Mac in Stockholm and Brussels? Obviously I understood that there could be a divergence from PPP in the short-run, but in the long-run PPP should surely expected to hold.

Following the logic of PPP I would – in the old days – have expected that when an inflation number was published for a country and the number was higher than expected the currency of the country would weaken. However, this is not how it really was – and still is – in most countries. Hence, I was surprised to see that upside surprises on the inflation numbers led to a strengthening of the country’s currency. What I initially failed to understand was that the important thing is not present inflation, but rather the expected future changes to monetary policy.

What of course happens is that if a central bank has a credible inflation target then a higher than expected inflation number will lead market participants to expect the central bank to tighten monetary policy.

Understanding exchange rate dynamic is mostly about understanding monetary policy rules

But what if the central bank is not following an inflation-targeting rule? What if the central bank doesn’t care about inflation at all? Would we then expect the market to price in monetary tightening if inflation numbers come in higher than expected? Of course not.

A way to illustrate this is to think about two identical countries – N and C. Both countries are importers of oil. The only difference is that country N is targeting the level of nominal GDP, while country C targets headline inflation.

Lets now imagine that the price of oil suddenly is halved. This is basically a positive supply to both country N and C. That causes inflation to drop by an equal amount in both countries. Realizing this market participants will know that the central bank of country C will move to ease monetary policy and they will therefore move reduce their holdings of C’s currency.

On the other hand market participants also will realize that country N’s central bank will do absolutely nothing in response to the positive supply shock and the drop in inflation. This will leave the exchange of country N unchanged.

Hence, we will see C’s currency depreciate relatively to N’s currency and it is all about the differences in monetary policy rules.

Exchange rates are never truly floating under inflation targeting

I also believe that this example actually illustrates that we cannot really talk about freely floating exchange rates in countries with inflation targeting regimes. The reason is that external shifts in the demand for a given country’s currency will in itself cause a change to monetary policy.

A sell-off in the currency causes the inflation to increase through higher import prices. This will cause the central bank to tighten monetary policy and the markets will anticipate this. This means that external shocks will not fully be reflected in the exchange rate. Even if the central bank does to itself hike interest rates (or reduce the money base) the market participants will basically automatically “implement” monetary tightening by increasing demand for the country’s currency.

This also means that an inflation targeting nearly by definition will respond to negative supply shocks by tightening monetary policy. Hence, negative external shocks will only lead to a weaker currency, but also to a contraction in nominal spending and likely also to a contraction in real GDP growth (if prices and wages are sticky).

Monetary policy sovereignty and importing monetary policy shocks

This also means that inflation targeting actually is reducing monetary policy sovereignty. The response of some Emerging Markets central banks over the past year illustrates well.

Lets take the example of the Turkish central bank. Over the past the year the Federal Reserve has initiated “tapering” and the People’s Bank of China has allowed Chinese monetary conditions to tighten. That has likely been the main factors behind the sell-off in Emerging Markets currencies – including the Turkish lira – over the past year.

The sell-off in Emerging Markets currencies has pushed up inflation in many Emerging Markets. This has causes inflation targeting central banks like the Turkish central bank (TCMB) to tighten monetary policy. In that sense one can say that the fed and PBoC have caused TCMB to tighten monetary policy. The TCMB hence doesn’t have full monetary sovereignty. Or rather the TCMB has chosen to not have full monetary policy sovereignty.

This also means that the TCMB will tend to import monetary policy shocks from the fed and the PBoC. In fact the TCMB will even import monetary policy mistakes from these global monetary superpowers.

The global business cycle and monetary policy rules

It is well-known that the business cycle is highly correlated across countries. However, in my view that doesn’t have to be so and it is strictly a result of the kind of monetary policy rules central banks follow.

In the old days of the gold standard or the Bretton Woods system the global business cycle was highly synchronized. However, one should have expected that to have broken down as countries across the world moved towards officially having floating exchange rates. However, that has not fully happened. In fact the 2008-9 crisis lead to a very synchronized downturn across the globe.

I believe the reason for this is that central banks do in fact not fully have floating exchange rate. Hence, inflation targeting de facto introduces a fear-of-floating among central banks and that lead central banks to import external shocks.

That would not have been the case if central banks in general targeted the level of NGDP (and ignored supply shocks) instead of targeting inflation.

So if central bankers truly want floating exchanges – and project themselves from the policy mistakes of the fed and the PBoC – they need to stop targeting inflation and should instead target NGDP.

PS It really all boils down to the fact that inflation targeting is a form of managed floating. This post was in fact inspired by Nick Rowe’s recent blog post What is a “managed exchange rate”?

Putin’s hopes for monetary miracles

There is a lot of focus on what Russian President Vladimir Putin is saying these days. However, it is mostly about geopolitics and much less about his views on economics and particularly on central banking. However, I came across some interesting comments from Putin on monetary policy, which quite well illustrates some of the problems with his – or rather his lack of – economic thinking.

This is from a recent article from Reuters:

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the country’s top finance and economy officials on Wednesday that the current forecast for gross domestic product this year was unacceptable.

“I will again stress that the existing growth rates and those forecast by the government cannot satisfy us,” Putin told Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Kremlin economic adviser Andrei Belousov and others.

…The weakening rouble, which has lost more than 10 percent against the dollar so far this year to trade at all-time lows , is also putting the central bank’s goal of 5 percent inflation this year in jeopardy.

“(We need to) … keep inflation at an acceptable, low level,” Putin said. He did not give details.

So Putin wants higher growth and lower inflation. Well, that is just great. Lower inflation and higher growth would certainly be great for Russia. The problem of course is whether the Russian central bank can deliver this?

Anybody who studied the AS/AD framework knows that monetary policy cannot deliver what Putin wants.

The only way to get lower inflation and higher real GDP growth is through a positive supply shock and we all know that the central bank – either the Russian or any other any other central bank in the world – cannot control what happens to the supply side of the economy.

CBR governor Nabiullina can fully control nominal spending (aggregate demand) in the Russian economy, but she has no powers to control aggregate supply. Unfortunately for her the Russian economy is presently experiencing a very significant negative aggregate supply shock – mostly due to capital outflow related to Putin’s de facto annexation of Crimea.

We can understand this negative supply shock by focusing on a number of different – but related – factors, which should be seen as part of the aggregated supply shock feeding through the Russian economy at the moment.

First of all the we are presently seeing massive capital outflows out of Russia as foreign investors are reducing exposure to the Russian economy and Foreign Direct Investments into Russian has probably come to a “sudden stop”. Lower investments obviously mean less capital accumulation and hence lower productivity growth. This of course is a negative supply shock.

Second, as a consequence of the geopolitical developments investors are undoubtedly seeing more of what Robert Higgs have called “regime uncertainty”. Will Russia become a more closed economy in the future? Will government come to play even bigger role in the economy and will we see even more regulation and corruption? All these factors are impacting investments – both foreign and domestic – negatively.

Third, the massive capital outflows have pushed the Russian rouble weaker. As a result import prices are rising significantly. That is increasing input costs in Russian industry and is hence also a negative supply shock.

Not only are these factors likely to be very negative, but they are likely also fairly permanent in nature and more importantly the Russian central bank can do very little about it.

The negative supply shock is illustrated in the graph below. The three factors described above are all adding up to pushing the Russian Aggregate Supply (AS) curve to the left. The result is of course that real GDP growth drops from y to y’ and that inflation increases from p to p’. This is not exactly what the doctor – or rather president Putin – ordered.

Negative supply shock demand shock Russia

So now governor Nabiullina can chose to ignore one of two demands from Putin. Either she tries to lower inflation or she tries to spur real GDP growth. However, if the shock to aggregate supply is permanent then she will not even be able to push up real GDP growth – at least not for long as inflation expectations are likely to “catch up” with any monetary easing fast.

She can, however, deliver lower inflation by tightening monetary conditions and this is of course exactly what she has done. The problem is of course that that comes at a cost – likely a large cost – of killing growth.

This is also illustrated in the graph above. When monetary conditions are tightened significantly (CBR as likely intervened for as much as USD 20bn in the currency markets over the past month and increased it key policy rate by 150bp) then the aggregate demand (AD) curve shifts to the left – pushing inflation down to p’’, but also further reducing real GDP growth to y’’ from y’.

In fact most economists who are covering the Russian economy have recently been revising down their growth forecasts for the Russian economy in 2014. And goes for myself as well and I am quite convinced that the Russian economy will go into recession and experience negative quarter-to-quarter GDP growth in at least the next couple of quarters.

Former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin agrees. Mr. Kudrin a couple of days ago said that he now expect a Russian recession in 2014 (See here).

So why is the CBR tightening monetary policy when it so obviously is likely to lead to a sharp slowdown in Russian growth? I most say I continue to be puzzled by Emerging Markets central banks around world, which over the past year have moved to sharply tightening monetary conditions to curb exchange rate depreciation despite these central banks officially operate floating exchange rate regimes.

The most likely explanation in my view is that policy makers – on strong pressures from governments – are politically motivated by the fact that currency weakness is see as being politically embarrassing for local rulers such as Russia’s President Putin or Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.

The paradox here is that this fear-of-floating likely is doing a lot more damage to the Russian economy at the moment than any of the sanctions, which this week have been introduced by the EU and the US.

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).

Please don’t fight it – the risk of EM policy mistakes

Emerging Markets are once again back in the headlines in the global financial media – from Turkey to Argentina market volatility has spiked from the beginning of the year.

The renewed Emerging Markets volatility has caused some commentators to claim that the crisis back. It migtht be, but also I think it is very important to differentiate between currency movements on its own and the underlying reasons for these movements and in this post I will argue that currency movements in itself is not necessarily a problem. In fact floating exchange rate regimes mean that the currency will move in response to shocks, which ideally should reduce macroeconomic volatility.

Imagine this would have been 1997

I think it is illustrative to think about what is going on in Emerging Markets right now by imagining that the dominant monetary and exchange rate regime had been pegged exchange rates as it was back in 1997 when the Asian crisis hit.

Lets take the case of Turkey and lets assume Turkey is operating a pegged exchange rate regime – for example against the US dollar. And lets at the same time note that Turkey presently has a current account deficit of around 7% of GDP. This current account deficit is nearly fully funded by portfolio inflows from abroad – for example foreign investors buying Turkish bonds and equities.

As long as investors are willing to buy these assets there is no problem. But then one day investors decide to close down their positions in Turkey – for example because of they expect the dollar to appreciate because of the Federal Reserve tightening monetary conditions or because investors simply become more risk averse for example because of concerns about Chinese growth. Lets assume this leads to a “sudden stop”. From day-to-day the funding of Turkey’s 7% current account deficit disappears.

Now Turkey has a serious funding problem. Turkey either needs to attract investors to fund the current account deficit or it needs to close the current account deficit immediately. The first option is unlikely to work in the short-term. So the current account deficit needs to be closed. That can happen either by a collapse in imports and/or through spike in exports.

To “force” this process the central bank will have to tighten monetary conditions dramatically. This happens “automatically” in a fixed exchange rate regime. As money leaves the country the lira comes under pressures. The central bank will then intervene in the market to curb to the currency from weakening thereby reducing the foreign currency reserve and in parallel the money base drops. The drying up of liquidity will also send money market rate spiking. This is a sharp tightening of monetary conditions. The result is a collapse in private consumption, investments, asset prices and increased deflationary pressures (inflation and wage growth drop). An internal devaluation will be underway. The result is normally a sharp increase in public and private debt ratios as nominal GDP collapses.

This process will effectively continue until the current account deficit is gone. This would cause a massive collapse in economic activity and as asset prices and growth expectations drop financial distress also increases dramatically, which could set-off a financial crisis.

This is the kind of scenario that played out during the Asian crisis in 1997, but it is also what happened in Turkey in 2001 and forced the Turkish government to eventually give up a failed pegged (crawling) peg regime.

Luckily we have floating exchange rates in most Emerging Markets

Compare that to what has been going on the Emerging Markets over the past 6-7 months. We have seen widespread sell-off in Emerging Markets and yes we have seen growth expectations being adjusted down (mostly because some EM central banks have been fighting the sell-off by tightening monetary policy). BUT we have not seen financial crisis and we have not seen a collapse in Emerging Markets property markets. We have not seen major negative spill-over to developed markets. Hence, the sell-off in Emerging Markets currencies cannot be called a macroeconomic or a financial crisis.

In fact the sell-off in EM currencies means that we have avoided exactly the 1997 scenario. That is not to say that everything is fine. It is not. Anybody who have been following the still ongoing corruption scandal in Turkey or the demonstrations in Ukraine and Thailand know these countries are struggling with some real fundamental political and economic troubles. In fact I fear that a number of Emerging Markets countries at the moment are seeing an erosion of their long-term growth potential due to regime uncertainty and general macroeconomic mismanagement. But we are not seeing an unnecessary economic, financial and political collapse induced by a foolish exchange rate regime. Luckily most Emerging Markets today have floating exchange rate regimes.

But some foolishness remain   

So yes, I believe we – and the populations in most Emerging Markets – are lucky that fixed exchange rate regimes mostly are a thing of the past in Emerging Markets today, but unfortunately it is not all Emerging Markets central bankers who have learned the lesson. Hence, many central bankers still suffer from a fear-of-floating.

Just take the Turkish central bank (TCMB). On Tuesday it will hold an emergency monetary policy meeting to discuss measures to curb the sell-off in the lira. Officially it about ensuring “price stability”, but the decision to have an emerging meeting only a week after a regular monetary policy meeting smells of desperation on part of the TCMB.

It is widely expected that the TCMB will hike its key policy rate – the market is already pricing a rate hike in the order of 200bp. If the TCMB delivers this then it will only have marginal impact on the lira – if the TCMB delivers more then it could prop up the lira at least for the short-run. But a larger than expected rate hike would also be constitute monetary policy tightening and given the present sentiment in the global Emerging Markets the TCMB likely will have to do something very aggressive to have a major impact on the lira. And what would the outcome be? Well, it is pretty easy – we would get a major contraction in Turkish growth to well-below potential growth in the Turkish economy.

Given the fact that inflation expectations (24 month ahead) is around 7% and hence the TCMB official 5% inflation target there might certainly be a need for a moderate tightening of monetary policy in Turkey, but should that happen as an abrupt tightening, which would send the Turkish economy into recession? I think that would be foolish. The TCMB should instead try to get over its fear-of-floating and focus on ensuring nominal stability. It is failing to do that right now by pursuing what mostly look like 1970s style stop-go policies.

Luckily the stop-go policies of TCMB is no longer the norm for Emerging Markets central banks who generally seem to understand that the level of the exchange rate is best left to the market to determine.

PS see also my preview on Tuesday’s Turkish monetary policy meeting here.

PPS This post is about value of floating exchange rates and even though I think floating exchange rate regimes now substantially reduce the risk of major Emerging Markets financial and economic crisis I am certainly not unworried about the state of Emerging Markets. I already noted my structural concerns in a number of Emerging Markets, but I am even more worried about the monetary induced slowdown in Chinese growth and I am somewhat worried that the PBoC might “mis-step” and cause a major financial and economic crisis in China with global ramifications particularly is it fails to keep the eye on the ball and instead gets preoccupied with fighting bubbles.

Update: My friend in Malaysia Hishamh tells the same story, but focusing on Malaysia.

China as a monetary superpower – the Sino-monetary transmission mechanism

This morning we got yet another disappointing number for the Chinese economy as the Purchasing Manager Index (PMI) dropped to 47.7 – the lowest level in 11 month. I have little doubt that the continued contraction in the Chinese manufacturing sector is due to the People’s Bank of China’s continued tightening of monetary conditions.

Most economists agree that the slowdown in the Chinese economy is having negative ramifications for the rest of the world, but for most economist the contraction in the Chinese economy is seen as affecting the rest of world through a keynesian export channel. I, however, believe that it is much more useful to understand China’s impact on the rest of the world through the perspective of monetary analysis. In this post I will try to explain what we could call the Sino-monetary transmission mechanism.

China is a global monetary superpower

David Beckworth has argued (see for example here) that the Federal Reserve is a monetary superpower as “it manages the world’s main reserve currency and many emerging markets are formally or informally pegged to dollar. Thus, its monetary policy gets exported to much of the emerging world. “

I believe that the People’s Bank of China to a large extent has the same role – maybe even a bigger role for some Emerging Markets particularly in Asia and among commodity exporters. Hence, the PBoC can under certain circumstances “dictate” monetary policy in other countries – if these countries decide to import monetary conditions from China.

Overall I see three channels through which PBoC influence monetary conditions in the rest of the world:

1) The export channel: For many countries in the world China is now the biggest or second biggest export market. So a monetary induced slowdown in the Chinese economy will have significant impact on many countries’ export performance. This is the channel most keynesian trained economists focus on.

2) Commodity price channel: As China is a major commodity consumer Chinese monetary policy has a direct impact on the demand for and the price of commodities. So tighter Chinese monetary policy is causing global commodity prices to drop. This obviously is having a direct impact on commodity exporters. See for example my discussion of Chinese monetary policy and the Brazilian economy here.

3) The financial flow channel: China has the largest currency reserves in the world . This means that China obviously is extremely important for demand for global financial assets. A contraction in Chinese monetary policy will reduce Chinese FX reserve accumulation and as a result impact demand for for example Emerging Markets bonds and equities.

For the keynesian-trained economist the story would end here. However, we cannot properly understand the impact of Chinese monetary policy on the rest of the world if we do not understand the importance of “local” monetary policy. Hence, in my view other countries of the world can decide to import monetary tightening from China, but they can certainly also decide not to import is monetary tightening. The PBoC might be a monetary superpower, but only because other central banks of the world allow it to be.

Pegged exchange rates, fear-of-floating and inflation targeting give PBoC its superpowers

I believe it is crucial to look at the currency impact of Chinese monetary tightening and how central banks around the world react to this to understand the global transmission of Chinese monetary policy.

Take the example of Malaysia. China is Malaysia’s second biggest export market. Hence, if PBoC tightens monetary policy it will likely hit Malaysian exports to China. Furthermore, tighter monetary policy in China would likely also put downward on global rubber and natural gas prices. Malaysia of course is a large exporter of both of these commodities. It is therefore natural to expect that Chinese monetary tightening will lead to depreciation pressures on the Malaysian ringgit.

Officially the ringgit is a freely floating currency. However, in reality the Malaysian central bank – like most central banks in Asia – suffers from a fear-of-floating and would clearly intervene directly or indirectly in the currency markets if the move in the ringgit became “excessive”. The financial markets obviously know this so even if the Malaysian central bank did not directly intervene in the FX market the currency moves would tend to be smaller than had the Malaysian central bank had a credible hands-off approach to the currency.

The result of this fear-of-floating is that when the currency tends to weaken the Malaysian central bank will step in directly or indirectly and signal a more hawkish stance on monetary policy. This obviously means that the central bank in this way decides to import Chinese monetary tightening. In this regard it is import to realize that the central bank can do this without really realizing it as the fear-of-floating is priced-in by the markets.

Hence, a fear-of-floating automatically will automatically lead central banks to import monetary tightening (or easing) from the monetary superpower – for example the PBoC. This of course is a “mild” case of “monetary import” compared to a fixed exchange rate regime. Under a fixed exchange rate regime there will of course be “full” import of the monetary policy and no monetary policy independence. In that sense Danish or Lithuanian monetary policy is fully determined by the ECB as the krone and the litas are pegged to the euro.

In regard to fixed exchange rate regimes and PBoC the case of Hong Kong is very interesting. The HK dollar is of course pegged to the US dollar and we would therefore normally say that the Federal Reserve determines monetary conditions in Hong Kong. However, that is not whole story. Imagine that the Federal Reserve don’t do anything (to the extent that is possible), but the PBoC tighens monetary conditions. As Hong Kong increasingly has become an integrated part of the Chinese economy a monetary tightening in China will hit Hong Kong exports and financial flows hard. That will put pressure the Hong Kong dollar and as the HK dollar is pegged to the US dollar the HK Monetary Authority will have to tighten monetary policy to maintain the peg. In fact his happens automatically as a consequence of Hong Kong’s currency board regime. So in that sense Chinese monetary policy also has a direct impact on Hong Kong monetary conditions.

Finally even a central bank that has an inflation inflation and allow the currency to float freely could to some extent import Chinese monetary policy. The case of Brazil is a good example of this. As I have argued earlier Chinese monetary tighening has put pressure on the Brazilian real though lower Brazilian exports to China and lower commodity prices. This has pushed up consumer prices in Brazil as import prices have spiked. This was the main “excuse” when the Brazilian central bank recently hiked interest rates. Hence, Brazil’s inflation targeting regime has caused the central bank to import monetary tightening from China, while monetary easing probably is warranted. This is primarly a result of a focus on consumer price inflation rather than on other measures of inflation such as the GDP deflator, which are much less sensitive to import price inflation.

The Kryptonite to take away PBoC’s superpowers

My discussion above illustrates that China can act as a monetary superpower and determine monetary conditions in the rest of the world, but also that this is only because central banks in the rest of world – particularly in Asia – allow this to happen. Malaysia or Hong Kong do not have to import Chinese monetary conditions. Hence, the central bank can choose to offset any shock from Chinese monetary policy. This is basically a variation of the Sumner Critique. The central bank of Malaysia obviously is in full control of nominal GDP/aggregate demand in Malaysia. If the monetary contraction in China leads to a weakening of the ringgit monetary conditions in Malaysia will only tighten if the central bank of Malaysia tries to to fight it by tightening monetary conditions.

Here the case of the Reserve Bank of Australia is telling. RBA operates a floating exchange rates regime and has a flexible inflation target. Under “normal” circumstances the aussie dollar will move more or less in sync with global commodity prices reflecting Australia is a major commodity exporter. In that sense the RBA is showing no real signs of suffering from a fear-of-floating. Furhtermore, As the graph below shows recently the aussie dollar has been allowed to weaken somewhat more than the drop in commodity prices (the CRB index) would normally have been dictating. However, during the recent Chinese monetary policy shock the aussie dollar has been allowed to significantly more than what the CRB index would have dictated. That indicates an “automatic” monetary easing in Australia in response to the Chinese shock. This in my view is very good example of a market-based monetary policy.

CRB AUD

If the central bank defines the nominal target clearly and allows the currency to float completely freely then that could works “krytonite” against the PBoC’s monetary superpowers. This is basically what is happening in the case of Australia.

As the market realizes that the RBA will move to ease monetary policy in response to a “China shock” the dollar the market will so to speak “pre-empt” the expected monetary easing by weakening the aussie dollar.

Kryptonite

Related posts:

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

The PBoC’s monetary supremacy over Brazil (but don’t blame the Chinese)

The antics of FX intervention – the case of Turkey

Should PBoC be blamed for the collapse in gold prices?

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

Too easy AND too tight – the RBI’s counterproductive stop-go policies

Only a couple of days ago I was complaining that the Turkish (and the Polish) central bank(s) have been intervening in the currency markets. My complains of the Turkish central bank’s fear-of-floating and what seemed to be politically motivated monetary operations were then followed by the Brazilian central bank that hiked interest rates – officially to curb inflationary pressures, but what to me very much looked like an effort to prop up the Brazilian real.

It indeed seems like there is a pattern emerging in particularly in Emerging Markets. The latest central bank to jump on the FX intervention bandwagon is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). This is from Reuters:

“The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced measures late on Monday to curb the rupee’s decline by tightening liquidity and making it costlier for banks to access funds from the central bank.

The RBI raised the Marginal Standing Facility (MSF) rate and Bank Rate each by 200 basis points to 10.25 percent, capped the amount up to which banks can borrow or lend under its daily liquidity window and announced a sale of government securities through an open market operation.

The RBI said total funds available under its repo window will be capped at 1 percent of banks’ deposits – roughly 750 billion rupees – from Wednesday. It announced a 120 billion rupee sale of government bonds for Thursday.

The central bank does not set a target for the rupee, which hit a record low of 61.21 to the dollar last week, but it does take measures to manage volatility”

It is very hard to be impressed by the RBI’s de facto currency targeting as there is hardly any economic arguments for  the RBI’s actions, but we can safely conclude whatever motivated the RBI have just implemented significant monetary tightening.

Too easy AND too tight – it’s called stop-go monetary policy

I have earlier argued that there might be arguments for tightening monetary policy in India. Hence, since 2009 nominal GDP has risen much sharper than the earlier NGDP-trend of around 12% NGDP growth.  The graph below illustrates this.

NGDP India July 2013Furthermore, there is there is nothing “optimal” about a 12% NGDP growth path. In fact I believe that the RBI if anything rather should target an NGDP growth path around 7-8% (as I have argued earlier).

The problem with the RBI’s recent actions is not necessarily the decision to tighten monetary policy per se, but rather the in fashion it is done.

The RBI’s decision has clearly not been based on a transparent and rule based monetary framework.

Hence, after years of high NGDP growth and high inflation the RBI suddenly slams the brakes. And mind you not to hit an NGDP level target or an inflation target for that matter, but to “stabilize” the currency.

The result of this currency “stabilization” might be that the RBI will be able to curb the sell-off in the rupee (I doubt it), but we can be pretty sure that the cost of this “operation” will likely be a fairly sharp slowdown in Indian real (and nominal) GDP growth. You have to choose – either you have a “stable” currency or stable macroeconomic conditions. I fear that the RBI has just sacrificed macroeconomic stability in a ill-fated attempt to stabilize the currency – at least if the RBI insist to continue the policy of FX intervention.

In a sense the RBI has been pursuing both too easy monetary policies – too high NGDP growth and inflation – and at the same time too tight monetary policy in the sense of an abrupt monetary contraction to prop up the rupee. This is the core of the problem – the RBI’s counterproductive stop-go policies.

The way forward – a completely freely floating rupee and 8% NGDP target 

In my view the RBI urgently needs give up its policy of fiddling with the currency and instead let the rupee float completely freely and instead announce an target on the nominal GDP level.

In my view the historical trend of 12% NGDP growth is too high and a lower NGDP growth target of 8% seems to be more appropriate. The RBI should hence announce that it gradually will slow NGDP growth to 8% over a five period. It is important that this should be a level target. Hence, if growth is faster than 11% in 2014 then it is important that NGDP growth will have to be even slower in the next four years. That is exactly the idea with a level target – you should not allow bygones-to-be-bygones. After 2018 the RBI will keep NGDP on 8% growth path.

Such a policy will ensure a lot more nominal stability than historically has been the case and therefore also very likely significantly increase macroeconomic stability.

Furthermore, a side effect will that the rupee likely will be more stable and predictable than under the present stop-go regime as FX volatility to a very large extent tend to be a result of monetary disorder.

A serious need for kick-starting economic reforms

There is no doubt that India seriously needs nominal stability, but there also is also a massive need for structural reforms in India. I think this story (quoted from Bloomberg) tells you everything you need to know about the extent of harmful and unnecessary government intervention in the Indian economy:

“For more than 100 years across the 19th and 20th centuries, its gnomic messages, worked into Morse code and out into language again, then delivered by postmen, connected human beings in faraway places. It announced births, marriages and deaths; called soldiers home from war or announced their demises to their families (or changed the course of the war itself); confirmed job offers or remittances to anxious and impatient souls. The voice of history whenever it was in haste, it was stoic by nature — concealing waves of emotion under its impassive, attenuated syntax — and easily available to rich and poor, in city and village.

In India, it was installed by the British as a way of administratively and militarily linking up the vast reaches of the subcontinent. But it became one of the engines of the freedom movement, a way for the Indian migrant to keep up a tenuous link to the world he had left far behind. The Indian word for it was “taar,” or wire, invoking an image more concrete than the English “telegraph.” (The “wire,” in English, was claimed by news media services.) Long after the rest of the world had moved on to more advanced technologies, the humble telegraph continued to enjoy great currency in India, before the onset of the digital revolution began to chip away at its hegemony. But the end has been in sight for some years now.

With the explosion of the mobile-phone revolution in the last decade (described recently in “The Great Indian Phone Book“), the telegraph service began for the first time to appear anachronistic. Text messages sent from mobile phones began to make the taar service seem quaint, even to rural users. This weekend, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, the state-run company that runs the system, is finally set to wind down its telegraph service for good, just as Western Union decided in 2006 that it was over for its telegrams in the U.S. Almost 16 decades after a member of the Indian public sent a telegram for the first time in 1855, the telegram will finally give up the ghost in one of its last surviving redoubts.

The Indian telegraph service still processes about 5,000 telegrams each day (most of them government notifications).

It is truly bizarre that a developing country like India until this day has continued to have a government run telegraph company, but I think it tells you a lot about how extreme the level of government intervention in the Indian economy still is.

In the 1990s growth was kick-started by a number of supply side reforms. However, over the past decade speed of reforms have been much more slower and in some area reforms have even been scaled back.

In this regard it should be noted that inflation has been stubbornly high – around 7-8% (GDP deflator) – since 2009. But at the same nominal GDP growth has slowed. This to me is an indication that while monetary policy has indeed become tighter India has also at the same time seen a deterioration of supply side conditions. The result has been a fairly sharp slowdown in real GDP growth in the same period.

I think it is quite unclear what is potential real GDP growth in India, but I think it likely is closer to 5-6% than to 8-10%. This would seems to be a quite low trend-growth given the low level of GDP/capita in India and India’s trend-growth seems to be somewhat lower than that of China.

Concluding, while a monetary regime change certainly is needed in India serious structural reforms are certainly also needed. The best place to start would be to get rid of India’s insanely high trade tariffs and generally opening up the economy significantly.

Update: s shorter edition of this blog post has also been published at financeasia.com. See here.

The PBoC’s monetary supremacy over Brazil (but don’t blame the Chinese)

Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega likes to blame the Federal Reserve (and the US in general) for most evils in the Brazilian economy and he has claimed that the fed has waged a ‘currency war’ on Emerging Market nations.

As my loyal readers know I think that it makes very little sense to talk about a currency war and  I strongly believe that any nation with free floating exchange rates is in full control of monetary conditions in the country and hence of both the price level and nominal GDP. However, here the key is a freely floating exchange rate. Hence, a country with a fixed exchange rate – like Hong Kong or Denmark – will “import” the monetary policy from the country its currency is pegged to – the case of Hong Kong to the US and in the case of Denmark to the euro zone.

In reality few countries in the world have fully freely floating exchange rates. Hence, as I argued in my previous post on Turkey many – if not most – central banks suffers from fear-of-floating. This means that these central banks effectively will at least to some extent let other central banks determine their monetary policy.

So to some extent Mantega is right – the fed does in fact have a great impact on the monetary conditions in most countries in the world, but this is because that the national central banks refuse to let their currencies float completely freely. There is a trade off between control of the currency and monetary sovereignty. You cannot have both – at least not with free capital movement.

From Chinese M1 to Brazilian NGDP  

Guido Mantega’s focus on the Federal Reserve might, however, be wrong. He should instead focus on another central bank – the People Bank of China (PBoC). By a bit of a coincidence I discovered the following relationship – shown in the graph below.

China M3 Brazil NGDP

What is the graph telling us? Well, it looks like the growth of the Chinese money supply (M1) has caused the growth of Brazilian nominal GDP – at least since 2000.

This might of course be a completely spurious correlation, but bare with me for a while. I think I am on to something here.

Obviously we should more or less expect this relationship if the Brazilian central bank had been pegging the Brazilian real to the Chinese renminbi, but we of course all know that that has not been the case.

The Chinese-Brazilian monetary transmission mechanism

So what is the connection between Chinese and Brazilian monetary conditions?

First of all since 2008-9 China has been Brazil’s biggest trading partner. Brazil is primarily exporting commodities to China. This means that easier Chinese monetary policy likely will spur Brazilian exports.

Second, easier Chinese monetary policy will also push up global commodity prices as China is the biggest global consumer of a number of different commodities. With commodity prices going up Brazil’s export to other countries than China will also increase.

Therefore, as Chinese monetary easing will be a main determinant of Brazilian exports we should expect the Brazilian real to strengthen. However, if the Brazilian central bank (and government) has a fear-of-floating the real will not be allowed to strengthen nearly as much as would have been the case under a completely freely floating exchange rate regime.Therefore, effectively the Brazilian central bank will at least partly import changes in monetary conditions from China.

As a result the Brazilian authorities has – knowingly or unknowingly – left its monetary sovereignty to the People’s Bank of China. The guy in control of Brazil’s monetary conditions is not Ben Bernanke, but PBoC governor Zhou Xiaochuan, but don’t blame him. It is not his fault. It is the result of the Brazilian authorities’ fear-of-floating.

The latest example – a 50bp rate hike

Recently the tightening of Chinese monetary conditions has been in the headlines in the global media. Therefore, if my hypothesis about the Chinese-Brazlian monetary transmission is right then tighter Chinese monetary conditions should trigger Brazilian monetary tightening. This of course is exactly what we are now seeing. The latest example we got on Wednesday when the Brazilian central bank hiked its key policy rates – the SELIC rate – by 50bp to 8.50%.

Hence, the Brazilian central bank is doing exactly the opposite than one should have expected. Shouldn’t a central bank ease rather than tighten monetary policy when the country’s main trading partner is seeing growth slowing significantly? Why import monetary tightening in a situation where export prices are declining and market growth is slowing? Because of the fear-of-floating.

Yes, Brazilian inflation has increased significantly if you look at consumer prices, but this is primarily a result of higher import prices (and other supply side factors) due to a weaker currency rather than stronger aggregate demand. In fact it is pretty clear that aggregate demand (and NGDP) growth is slowing significantly. The central bank is hence reacting to a negative supply shock (higher import prices) and ignoring the negative demand shock.

Obviously, it is deeply problematic that the Brazilian authorities effectively have given up monetary sovereignty to the PBoC – and it is very clear that macroeconomic volatility is much higher as a result. The solution is obviously for the Brazilian authorities to get over the fear-of-floating and allowing the Brazilian real to float much more freely in the same way has for example the Reserve Bank of Australia is doing.

The antics of FX intervention – the case of Turkey

I have often been puzzled by central banks’ dislike of currency flexibility. This is also the case for many central banks, which officially operating floating exchange rate regimes.

The latest example of this kind of antics is the Turkish central bank’s recent intervention to prop as the Turkish lira after it has depreciated significantly in connection with the recent political unrest. This is from cnbc.com:

“On Monday, the Turkish central bank attempted to stop the currency’s slide by selling a record amount of foreign-exchange reserves in seven back-to-back auctions. The bank sold $2.25 billion dollars, or around 5 percent of its net reserves, to shore up its currency – the most it has ever spent to do so”

A negative demand shock in response to a supply shock

I have earlier described the political unrest in Turkey as a negative supply shock and it follows naturally from currency theory that a negative supply shock is negative for the currency and in that sense it shouldn’t be a surprise that the political unrest has caused the lira to weaken. One can always discuss the scale of the weakening, but it is hard to dispute that increased ‘regime uncertainty’ should cause the lira to weaken.

It follows from ‘monetary theory 101’ that central banks should not react to supply shocks – positive or negative. However, central banks are doing that again and again nonetheless and the motivation often is that central banks see market moves as “excessive” or “irrational” and therefore something they need to “correct”. This is probably also the motivation for the Turkish central bank. But does that make any sense economically? Not in my view.

We can illustrate the actions of the Turkish central bank in a simple AS/AD framework.

AS AD SRAS shock Turkey

The political unrest has increased ‘regime uncertainty’, which has shifted the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS) to the left. This push up inflation to P’ and output/real GDP drops to Y’.

In the case of a nominal GDP targeting central bank that would be it. However, in the case of Turkey the central bank (TCMB) has reacted by effectively tightening monetary conditions. After all FX intervention to prop up the currency is “reverse quantitative easing” – the TCMB has effectively cut the money base by its actions. This a negative demand shock.

In the graph this mean that the AD curve shifts  to the left from AD to AD’. This will push down inflation to P” and output to Y”.

In the example the combined impact of a supply shock and the demand shock is an increase in inflation. However, that is not necessarily given and dependent the shape of the SRAS curve and the size of the demand shock.

However, more importantly there is no doubt about the impact on real GDP growth – it will contract and the FX intervention will exacerbate the negative effects of the initial supply shock.

So why would the central bank intervene? Well, if we want to give the TCMB the benefit of the doubt the simple reason is that the TCMB has an inflation target. And since the negative supply shock increases inflation one could hence argue that the TCMB is “forced” by its target to tighten monetary policy. However, if that was the case why intervene in the FX market? Why not just use the normal policy instrument – the key policy interest rates?

My view is that this is a simple case of ‘fear-of-floating’ and the TCMB is certainly not the only central bank to suffer from this irrational fear. Recently the Polish central bank has also intervened to prop up the Polish zloty despite the Polish economy is heading for deflation in the coming months and growth is extremely subdued.

The cases of Turkey and Poland in my view illustrate that central banks are often not guided by economic logic, but rather by political considerations. Mostly central banks will refuse to acknowledge currency weakness is a result of for example bad economic policies and would rather blame “evil speculators” and “irrational” behaviour by investors and FX intervention is hence a way to signal to voters and others that the currency sell-off should not be blamed on bad policies, but on the “speculators”.

In that sense the central banks are the messengers for politicians. This is what Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan recently had to say about what he called the “interest rate lobby”:

“The lobby has exploited the sweat of my people for years. You will not from now on…

…Those who attempt to sink the bourse, you will collapse. Tayyip Erdogan is not the one with money on the bourse … If we catch your speculation, we will choke you. No matter who you are, we will choke you

…I am saying the same thing to one bank, three banks, all banks that make up this lobby. You have started this fight against us, you will pay the high price for it.

..You should put the high-interest-rate lobby in their place. We should teach them a lesson. The state has banks as well, you can use state banks.”

So it is the “speculators” and the banks, which are to blame. Effectively the actions of the TCMB shows that the central banks at least party agrees with this assessment.

Finally, when a central bank intervenes in the currency market in reaction to supply shocks it is telling investors that it effectively dislikes fully floating exchange rates and therefore it will effectively reduce the scope of currency adjustments to supply shocks. This effective increases in the negative growth impact of the supply shock. In that sense FX intervention is the same as saying “we prefer volatility in economic activity to FX volatility”. You can ask yourself whether this is good policy or not. I think my readers know what my view on this is.

Update: I was just reminded of a quote from H. L. Mencken“For every problem, there’s a simple solution. And it’s wrong.”

Fear-of-floating, misallocation and the law of comparative advantages

The first commandment of central banking should be thou shall not distort relative prices. However, central bankers often tend to forget this – knowingly or unknowingly. How often have we not heard stern warnings from central bankers that property prices are too high or too low – or that a currency is overvalued or undervalued. And in the last couple of years central bankers have even tried to manipulate the shape of the bond yield curve – just think of the Fed’s “operation twist”.

Central bankers are distorting relative prices in many ways – by for example by trying to prick bubbles (or what they think are bubbles). Sometimes the distortion of relative prices is done unknowingly. The best example of this is when central banks operate an inflation target. Both George Selgin and David Eagle teach us that inflation targeting means that central banks react to supply shocks and thereby distort relative prices. In an open economy this will lead to a distortion of the relative prices between trade goods and non-traded goods.

As I will show below central bankers’ eagerness to distort relative prices is as harmful as other distortions of relative prices for example as a result of protectionism and will often lead to numerous negative side-effects.

The fear-of-floating – the violation of the Law of comparative advantages

I have recently given a bit of attention to the concept of fear-of-floating. Despite being officially committed to floating exchange rates many central banks from time to time intervene in the FX markets to “manage” the currency. As I have earlier noted a good example is the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank), which often has intervened either directly or verbally in the currency market or verbally to try to curb the strengthening of the Norwegian krone. In March for example Norges Bank surprisingly cut interest rates to curb the strengthening of the krone – despite the general macroeconomic situation really warranted a tightening of monetary conditions.

So why is Norge Bank so fearful of a truly free floating krone? The best explanation in the case of Norway is that the central bank’s fears that when oil prices rise then the Norwegian krone will strengthen and hence make the non-oil sectors in the economy less competitive. This is what happened in 2003 when a sharp appreciation of the krone cause an “exodus” of non-oil sector companies from Norway. Hence, there is no doubt that it is a sub-target of Norwegian monetary policy to ensure a “diversified” Norwegian economy. This policy is strongly supported by the Norwegian government’s other policies – for example massive government support for the agricultural sector. Norway is not a EU member – and believe it or not government subsidies for the agricultural sector is larger than in the EU!

However, in the same way as government subsidies for the agricultural sector distort economic allocation so do intervention in the currency market. However, while most economists agree that government subsidies for ailing industries is violating the law of comparative advantages and lead to a general economic lose in the form of lower productivity and less innovation few economists seem to be aware that the fear-of-floating (including indirect fear-of-floating via inflation targeting) have the same impact.

Lets look at an example. Let say that oil prices increase by 30% and that tend to strengthen the Norwegian krone. This is the same as to say that the demand curve in the oil sector has shifted to the right. This will increase the demand for labour and capital in the oil sector. In a freely mobile labour market this will push up salaries both in the oil sector and in the none-oil sector. Hence, the none-oil sector will become less competitive – both as a result of higher labour and capital costs, but also because of a stronger krone. As a consequence labour and capital will move from the non-oil sector to the oil sector. Most economists would agree that this is a natural market process that ensures the most productive and profitable use of economic resources. As David Ricardo taught us long ago – countries should produce the goods in which the country has a comparative advantage. The unhampered market mechanism ensures this.

However, if the central bank suffers from fear-of-floating then the central bank will intervene to curb the strengthening of the krone. This has two consequences. First, the increase in profitability in the oil sector will be smaller than it would have been had the krone been allowed to strengthen. This would also mean that the increase in demand for capital and labour in the oil sector would be smaller than it would have been if the krone had been allowed to float completely freely (or had been pegged to the oil price). Second, this would mean that the “scaling down” of the non-oil sector will be smaller than otherwise would have been the case – and as a result this sector will demand too much labour and capital relative to what is economically optimal. This is exactly what the central bank would like to see. However, I think the example pretty clearly shows that such as policy is violating the law of comparative advantages. Relative prices are distorted and as a result the total economic output and welfare will be smaller than would have been the case under a freely floating currency.

It is often argued that if the oil price is very volatile and the krone (or another oil-exporting country’s currency) therefore would be more volatile and as a consequence the non-oil sector will see large swings in economic activity and it would be in the interest of the central bank to reduce this volatility and thereby stabilise the development in the non-oil sector. However, this completely misses the point with free markets. Prices should be allowed to adjust to ensure an efficient allocation of capital and labour. If you intervene in the market process allocation of resources will be less efficient.

Furthermore, the central bank cannot permanently distort relative prices. If the currency is kept artificially weak by easier monetary policy it will just inflated the entire economy – and as a result capital and labour cost will increase – as will inflation – and sooner or later the competitive advantage created by an artificially weak currency will be gradually eaten by higher prices and wages. In an economy where wages and prices are downward rigid – as surely is the case in the Norwegian economy – this will created major adjustment problems if oil prices drops sharply especially if the central bank also try to curb the weakening of the currency (as the Russian central bank did in 2008). Hence, by trying to dampen the swings in the FX rates the central bank will actually move the adjustment process from the FX markets (which is highly flexible) to the much less flexible labour and good markets. So even though the central bank might want to curb the volatility in economic activity in the non-oil sector it will actually rather increase the general level of volatility in the economy. In an economy with fully flexible prices and wages the manipulation of the FX rate would not be a problem. However, if for example wages are downward rigid because interventionist labour market policy as it is the case in Norway then a policy of curbing the volatility in the FX rate quite obviously (to me at least) leads to lower productivity and higher volatility in both nominal and rate variables.

I have used the Norwegian economy as an example. I should stress that I might as well have used for example Brazil or Russia – as the central banks in these countries to a much larger degree than Norges Bank suffers from a fear-of-floating. I could in fact also have used the ECB as the ECB indirectly suffers from a fear-of-floating as the ECB is targeting inflation.

I am not aware of any research on the consequences for productivity of fear-of-floating, but I am sure it could be an interesting area of research – I wonder if Norge Banks is aware how big the productive lose in the Norwegian economy has been due to it’s policy of curbing oil price driven swings in the krone. I am pretty sure that the Russian central bank and the Brazilian central bank have not given this much thought at all. Neither has most other Emerging Market central banks that frequently intervenes in the FX markets. 

PS do I need to say how to avoid these problems? Yes you guessed right – NGDP level targeting or by pegging the currency to the oil price. If you want to stay with in a inflation targeting framework then central bank central bank should at least target domestic demand inflation or what I earlier inspired by David Eagle has termed Quasi-Real inflation (QRPI).

PS Today I am spending my day in London – I wrote this on the flight. I bet a certain German central banker will be high on the agenda in my meetings with clients…

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