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.


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.



In a deflationary world at the ZLB we need ‘competitive devaluations’

Sunday we got some bad news, which many wrongly will see as good news – this is from Reuters:

China and the United States on Sunday committed anew to refrain from competitive currency devaluations, and China said it would continue an orderly transition to a market-oriented exchange rate for the yuan CNY=CFXS.

…Both countries said they would “refrain from competitive devaluations and not target exchange rates for competitive purposes”, the fact sheet said.

Meanwhile, China would “continue an orderly transition to a market-determined exchange rate, enhancing two-way flexibility. China stresses that there is no basis for a sustained depreciation of the RMB (yuan). Both sides recognize the importance of clear policy communication.”

There is really nothing to celebrate here. The fact is that in a world where the largest and most important central banks in the world – including the Federal Reserve – continue to undershoot their inflation targets and where deflation remains a real threat any attempt – including using the exchange rate channel – to increase inflation expectations should be welcomed.

This of course is particularly important in a world where the ‘natural interest rate’ likely is quite close to zero and where policy rates are stuck very close to the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). In such a world the exchange rate can be a highly useful instrument to curb deflationary pressures – as forcefully argued by for example Lars E. O. Svensson and Bennett McCallum.

In fact by agreeing not to use the exchange rate as a channel for easing monetary conditions the two most important ‘monetary superpowers’ in the world are sending a signal to the world that they are in fact not fully committed to fight deflationary pressures. That certainly is bad news – particularly because especially the Fed seems bewildered about conducting monetary policy in the present environment.

Furthermore, I am concerned that the Japanese government is in on this deal – at least indirectly – and that is why the Bank of Japan over the last couple of quarters seems to have allowed the yen to get significantly stronger, which effective has undermined BoJ chief Kuroda’s effort to hit BoJ’s 2% inflation target.

A couple of months ago we also got a very strong signal from ECB chief Mario Draghi that “competitive devaluations” should be avoided. Therefore there seems to be a broad consensus among the ‘Global Monetary Superpowers’ that currency fluctuation should be limited and that the exchange rate channel should not be used to fight devaluation pressures.

This in my view is extremely ill-advised and in this regard it should be noted that monetary easing if it leads to a weakening of the currency is not a beggar-thy-neighbour policy as it often wrongly is argued (see my arguments about this here).

Rather it could be a very effective way of increase inflationary expectations and that is exactly what we need now in a situation where central banks are struggling to figure out how to conduct monetary policy when interest rates are close the ZLB.

See some of my earlier posts on ‘currency war’/’competitive devaluations’ here:

Bernanke knows why ‘currency war’ is good news – US lawmakers don’t

‘The Myth of Currency War’

Don’t tell me the ‘currency war’ is bad for European exports – the one graph version

The New York Times joins the ‘currency war worriers’ – that is a mistake

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

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

Fiscal devaluation – a terrible idea that will never work

Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation

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

The luck of the ‘Scandies’


It is time for BoE to make the 4% NGDP target official

While I do not want to overestimate the effects of Brexit on the UK economy it is clear that last week’s Brexit vote has significantly increased “regime uncertainty” in the UK.

As I earlier have suggested such a spike in regime uncertainty is essentially a negative supply shock, which could turn into a negative demand shock if interest rates are close the the Zero Lower Bound and the central bank is reluctant to undertake quantitative easing.

In the near-term it seems like the biggest risk is not the increase in regime uncertainty itself, but rather the second order effect in the form of a monetary shock (increased money demand and a drop in the natural interest rate below the ZLB).

Furthermore, from a monetary policy perspective there is nothing the central bank – in the case of the UK the Bank of England – can do about a negative supply other than making sure that the nominal interest rate is equal to the natural interest rate.

Therefore, the monetary response to the ‘Brexit shock’ should basically be to ensure that there is not an additional shock from tightening monetary conditions.

So far the signals from the markets have been encouraging 

One of the reasons that I am not overly worried about near to medium-term effects on the UK economy is the signal we are getting from the financial markets – the UK stock markets (denominated in local currency) has fully recovered from the initial shock, market inflation expectations have actually increased and there are no signs of distress in the UK money markets.

That strongly indicates that the initial demand shock is likely to have been more than offset already by an expectation of monetary easing from the Bank of England. Something that BoE governor Mark Carney yesterday confirmed would be the case.

These expectations obviously are reflected in the fact that the pound has dropped sharply and the market now is price in deeper interest rate cuts than before the ‘Brexit shock’.

Looking at the sharp drop in the pound and the increase in the inflation expectations tells us that there has in fact been a negative supply shock. The opposite would have been the case if the shock primarily had been a negative monetary shock (tightening of monetary conditions) – then the pound should have strengthened and inflation should have dropped.

Well done Carney, but lets make it official – BoE should target 4% NGDP growth

So while there might be uncertainty about how big the negative supply shock will be, the market action over the past week strongly indicates that Bank of England is fairly credible and that the markets broadly speaking expect the BoE to ensuring nominal stability.

Hence, so far the Bank of England has done a good job – or rather because BoE was credible before the Brexit shock hit the nominal effects have been rather limited.

But it is not given that BoE automatically will maintain its credibility going forward and I therefore would suggest that the BoE should strengthen its credibility by introducing a 4% Nominal GDP level target (NGDPLT). It would of course be best if the UK government changed BoE’s mandate, but alternatively the BoE could just announce that such target also would ensure the 2% inflation target over the medium term.

In fact there would really not be anything revolutionary about a 4% NGDP level target given what the BoE already has been doing for sometime.

Just take a look at the graph below.


I have earlier suggested that the Federal Reserve de facto since mid-2009 has followed a 4% NGDP level target (even though Yellen seems to have messed that up somewhat).

It seems like the BoE has followed exactly the same rule.  In fact from early 2010 it looks like the BoE – knowingly or unknowingly – has kept NGDP on a rather narrow 4% growth path. This is of course the kind of policy rule Market Monetarists like Scott Sumner, David Beckworth, Marcus Nunes and myself would have suggested.

In fact back in 2011 Scott authored a report – The Case for NGDP Targeting – for the Adam Smith Institute that recommend that the Bank of England should introduce a NGDP level target. Judging from the actual development in UK NGDP the BoE effectively already at that time had started targeting NGDP.

At that time there was also some debate that the UK government should change BoE’s mandate. That unfortunately never happened, but before he was appointed BoE governor expressed some sympathy for the idea.

This is what Mark Carney said in 2012 while he was still Bank of Canada governor:

“.. adopting a nominal GDP (NGDP)-level target could in many respects be more powerful than employing thresholds under flexible inflation targeting. This is because doing so would add “history dependence” to monetary policy. Under NGDP targeting, bygones are not bygones and the central bank is compelled to make up for past misses on the path of nominal GDP.

when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could be a more favourable case for NGDP targeting. The exceptional nature of the situation, and the magnitude of the gaps involved, could make such a policy more credible and easier to understand.

Shortly after making these remarks Mark Carney became Bank of England governor.

So once again – why not just do it? 1) The BoE has already effectively had a 4% NGDP level target since 2010, 2) Mark Carney already has expressed sympathy for the idea, 3) Interest rates are already close to the Zero Lower Bound in the UK.

Finally, a 4% NGDP target would be the best ‘insurance policy’ against an adverse supply shock causing a new negative demand shock – something particularly important given the heightened regime uncertainty on the back of the Brexit vote.

No matter the outcome of the referendum the BoE should ease monetary conditions 

If we use the 4% NGDP “target” as a benchmark for what the BoE should do in the present situation then it is clear that monetary easing is warranted and that would also have been the case even if the outcome for the referendum had been “Remain”.

Hence, particularly over the past year actual NGDP have fallen somewhat short of the 4% target path indicating that monetary conditions have become too tight.

I see two main reasons for this.

First of all, the BoE has failed to offset the deflationary/contractionary impact from the tightening of monetary conditions in the US on the back of the Federal Reserve becoming increasingly hawkish. This is by the way also what have led the pound to become somewhat overvalued (which also helps add some flavour the why the pound has dropped so much over the past week).

Second, the BoE seems to have postponed taking any significant monetary action ahead of the EU referendum and as a consequence the BoE has fallen behind the curve.

As a consequence it is clear that the BoE needs to cut its key policy to zero and likely also would need to re-start quantitative easing. However, the need for QE would be reduced significantly if a NGDP level target was introduced now.

Furthermore, it should be noted that given the sharp drop in the value of the pound over the past week we are likely to see some pickup in headline inflation over the next couple of month and even though the BoE should not react to this – even under the present flexible inflation target – it could nonetheless create some confusion regarding the outlook for monetary easing. Such confusion and potential mis-communication would be less likely under a NGDP level targeting regime.

Just do it Carney!

There is massive uncertainty about how UK-EU negotiations will turn out and the two major political parties in the UK have seen a total leadership collapse so there is enough to worry about in regard to economic policy in the UK so at least monetary policy should be the force that provides certainty and stability.

A 4% NGDP level target would ensure such stability so I dare you Mark Carney – just do it. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer can always put it into law later. After all it is just making what the Bank of England has been doing since 2010 official!

Three simple changes to the Fed’s policy framework

Frankly speaking I don’t feel like commenting much on the FOMC’s decision today to keep the Fed fund target unchanged – it was as expected, but sadly it is very clear that the Fed has not given up the 1970s style focus on the Phillips curve and on the US labour market rather than focusing on monetary and market indicators. That is just plain depressing.

Anyway, I would rather focus on the policy framework rather than on today’s decision because at the core of why the Fed consistently seems to fail on monetary policy is the weaknesses in the monetary policy framework.

I here will suggest three simple changes in the Fed’s policy framework, which I believe would dramatically improve the quality of US monetary policy.

  1. Introduce a 4% Nominal GDP level target. The focus should be on the expected NGDP level in 18-24 month. A 4% NGDP target would over the medium term also ensure price stability and  “maximum employment”. No other targets are needed.
  2. The Fed should give up doing forecasting on its own. Instead three sources for NGDP expectations should be used: 1) The Fed set-up a prediction market for NGDP in 12 and 24 months. 2) Survey of professional forecasters’ NGDP expectations. 3) The Fed should set-up financial market based models for NGDP expectations.
  3. Give up interest rate targeting (the horrible “dot” forceasts from the FOMC members) and instead use the money base as the monetary policy framework. At each FOMC meeting the FOMC should announce the permanent yearly growth rate of the money base. The money base growth rate should be set to hit the Fed’s 4% NGDP level target. Interest rates should be completely market determined. The Fed should commit itself to only referring to the expected level for NGDP in 18-24 months compared to the targeted level when announcing the money base growth rate. Nothing else should be important for monetary policy.

This would have a number of positive consequences.

First, the policy would be completely rule based contrary to today’s discretion policy.

Second, the policy would be completely transparent and in reality the market would be doing most of the lifting in terms of implementing the NGDP target.

Third, there would never be a Zero-Lower-Bound problem. With money base control monetary policy can always be eased also if interest rates are at the ZLB.

Forth, all the silly talk about bubbles, moral hazard and irrational investors in the stock markets would come to an end. Please stop all the macro prudential nonsense right now. The Fed will never ever be able to spot bubbles and should not try to do it.

Fifth,the Fed would stop reacting to supply shocks (positive and negative) and finally six the FOMC could essentially be replaced by a computer as long ago suggested by Milton Friedman.

Will this ever happen? No, there is of course no chance that this will ever happen because that would mean that the FOMC members would have to give up the believe in their own super human abilities and the FOMC would have to give up its discretionary powers. So I guess we might as well prepare ourself for a US recession later this year. It seems incredible, but right now it seems like Janet Yellen’s Fed has repeated the Mistakes of ’37.

PS What I here have suggested is essentially a forward-looking McCallum rule.


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Yellen’s recession and that horrible Phillips Curve

The global stock markets are taking yet another beating today and as I am writing this S&P500 is down nearly 3.5% and the latest round of US macroeconomic data shows relatively sharp slowdown in the US economic activity and more and more commentators and market participants are now openly taking about the risk of a US recession in the coming quarters.

Obviously part of the story is China, but at the core of this is also is the fact that Fed chair Janet Yellen has been overly eager to interest rates despite the fact that monetary and market indicators have not indicated any need to monetary tightening. It is only the defunct Phillips Curve that could led Yellen to draw the conclusion that monetary tightening is needed in the US.

Back in August I wrote:

To Janet Yellen changes in inflation seems to be determined by the amount of slack in the US labour market and if labour market conditions tighten then inflation will rise. This of course is essentially an old-school Phillips curve relationship and a relationship where causality runs from labour market conditions to wage growth and on to inflation.

This means that for the Yellen-fed labour market indicators essentially are as important as they were for former Fed chairman Arthur Burns in the 1970s and that could turn into a real problem for US monetary policy going forward.

…Central banks temporary can impact real variables such as unemployment or real GDP, but it cannot permanently impact these variables. Similarly there might be a short-term correlation between real variables and nominal variables such as a correlation between nominal wage growth (or inflation) and unemployment (or the output gap).

However, inflation or the growth of nominal income is not determined by real factors in the longer-term (and maybe not even in the short-term), but rather than by monetary factors – the balance between demand and supply of money.

The Yellen-fed seems to be questioning Friedman’s fundamental insight. Instead the Yellen-Fed seems to think of inflation/deflation as a result of the amount of “slack” in the economy and the Yellen-fed is therefore preoccupied with measuring this “slack” and this is what now seems to be leading Yellen & Co. to conclude it is time to tighten US monetary conditions.

This is of course the Phillips curve interpretation of the US economy – there has been steady job growth and unemployment is low so inflation most be set to rise no matter what nominal variables are indicating and not matter what market expectations are. Therefore, Yellen (likely) has concluded that a rate hike soon is warranted in the US.

This certainly is unfortunately. Instead of focusing on the labour market Janet Yellen should instead pay a lot more attention to the development in nominal variables and to the expectations about these variables.

…If we look at nominal variables – the price level, NGDP, the money supply and nominal wages – the conclusion is rather clear. The Fed has actually since 2009 delivered a remarkable level of nominal stability in terms of keeping nominal variables very close to the post-2009 trend.

If we want to think about the Bernanke-Fed the Fed had one of the following targets: 1.5% core PCE level targeting, 4% NGDP level targeting, 7% M2-level targeting or 2% wage level targeting at least after the summer of 2009.

However, the Yellen-Fed seems to be focusing on real variables – and particularly labour market variables – instead. This is apparently leading Janet Yellen to conclude that monetary conditions should be tightened.

However, nominal variables are telling a different story – it seems like monetary conditions have become slightly too tight within the past 6-12 months and therefore the Fed needs to communicate that it will not hike interest rates in September if it wants to keep nominal variables on their post-2009 path.

Obviously the Fed cannot necessarily hit more than one nominal variable at the time so the fact that it has kept at least four nominal variables on track in the past 5-6 years is quite remarkable. However, the Fed needs to chose one nominal target and particularly needs to give up the foolish focus on labour market conditions and instead fully commit to a nominal target. My preferred target would certainly be a 4% (or 5%) Nominal GDP level target.

And Chair Yellen, please lay the Phillips curve to rest if you want to avoid sending the US economy into recession in 2016!

Obviously Yellen did not get the memo and now we are exactly risking that recession that I warned about in August.

And no I am not bragging about my ability to forecast. In fact I am doing the exact opposite. In August the markets were telling us that there was no inflationary pressures (and I was only repeating that), but Yellen has all along insisted that the market expectations about inflation were wrong and that the Phillips Curve was right. That might turn out to be a costly mistake.

Larry Kudlow is of course right – the Fed should not base policy on labour

Watch this wonderful rant from legendary economist and commentary Larry Kudlow.

Larry is of course right – it is highly problematic that the Federal Reserve now seems to have gone back to the kind of Phillip curve inspired monetary policy that caused the inflationary failures back in the 1970s. This time around it will led to deflation rather than inflation. The Fed should focus on nominal (NGDP or inflation) rather than real (unemployment or RGDP) variables.

I have of course written extensively about this. See here:

Yellen should re-read Friedman’s “The Role of Monetary Policy” and lay the Phillips curve to rest

Talking to Ambrose about the Fed

Yellen is transforming the US economy into her favourite textbook model

The market’s message to Yellen: You have become too hawkish

Inching closer to a US recession, while Yellen is eager to hike


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: or

Inching closer to a US recession, while Yellen is eager to hike

Today we got the Minutes from the December 15-16 FOMC meeting where the Fed hiked interest rates.  That in itself is not terribly interesting and there is not much news in the Minutes to shock the markets.

Nonetheless it is another day of tightening of US monetary conditions – stronger dollar, lower inflation expectations, lower commodity prices and lower stock markets. But maybe the most alarming set of information comes from the Atlanta Fed that today published a so-called Nowcast for US real GDP growth in Q4 2015 (GNPNow) indicating the US real GDP slowed to just 1% (annualized quarterly growth rate) in Q4.



It is in this environment the Fed continues to signal that more monetary tightening is warranted.

So why is the Fed so hawkish despited very clear signs of continued growth deceleration in the economy and despite the fact that basically all monetary indications that we can think of indicates that monetary policy has become too tight?

To me it we should blame the unholy alliance between those FOMC members that are obsessed with looking at labour market data (to the same extent Arthur Burns was in 1970s) and the macro prudential crowd who worry that the Fed is inflating a bubble (somewhere in some asset market).

Needless to say there are no monetarists on the FOMC and as a consequence the FOMC continues to ignore both the signals from monetary indicators and from the market and as a consequence the risk of a US recession during 2016 (or 2017) continues to rise day-by-day.

PS maybe it is about time to start tracking Google Trends for the trend in Google searches for “recession”.

HT Michael Darda


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: or

The ‘Dollar Bloc’ continues to fall apart – Azerbaijan floats the Manat

I have for sometime argued that the quasi-currency union ‘Dollar Bloc’ is not an Optimal Currency Area and that it therefore is doomed to fall apart.

The latest ‘member’ of the ‘Dollar Bloc’ left today. This is from Bloomberg:

Azerbaijan’s manat plunged to the weakest on record after the central bank relinquished control of its exchange rate, the latest crude producer to abandon a currency peg as oil prices slumped to the lowest in 11 years.

The third-biggest oil producer in the former Soviet Union moved to a free float on Monday to buttress the country’s foreign-exchange reserves and improve competitiveness amid “intensifying external economic shocks,” the central bank said in a statement. The manat, which has fallen in only one of the past 12 years, nosedived 32 percent to 1.5375 to the dollar as of 2:30 p.m. in the capital, Baku, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Caspian Sea country joins a host of developing nations from Vietnam to Nigeria that have weakened their currencies this year after China devalued the yuan, commodities prices sank and the Federal Reserve prepared to raise interest rates. Azerbaijan burned through more than half of its central bank reserves to defend the manat after it was allowed to weaken about 25 percent in February as the aftershocks of the economic crisis in Russia rippled through former Kremlin satellites.

The list of de-peggers from the dollar grows longer by the day – Kazakhstan, Armenia, Angola and South Sudan (the list is longer…) have all devalued in recent months as have of course most importantly China.

It is the tribble-whammy of a stronger dollar (tighter US monetary conditions), lower oil prices and the Chinese de-coupling from the dollar, which is putting pressure on the oil exporting dollar peggers. Add to that many (most?) are struggling with serious structural problems and weak institutions.

This process will likely continue in the coming year and I find it harder and harder to believe that there will be any oil exporting countries that are pegged to the dollar in 12 months – at least not on the same strong level as today.

De-pegging from the dollar obviously is the right policy for commodity exporters given the structural slowdown in China, a strong dollar and the fact that most commodity exporters are out of sync with the US economy.

Therefore, commodity exporters should either float their currencies and implement some form of nominal GDP or nominal wage targeting or alternatively peg their currencies at a (much) weaker level against a basket of oil prices and other currencies reflecting these countries trading partners. This of course is what I have termed an Export Price Norm.

Unfortunately, most oil exporting countries seem completely unprepared for the collapse of the dollar bloc, but they could start reading here or drop me a mail (

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



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: or





Talking to Ambrose about the Fed

I have been talking to The Telegraph’s  about the Fed’s decision to hike interest rates (see here):

“All it will take is one shock,” said Lars Christensen, from Markets and Money Advisory. “It is really weird that they are raising rates at all. Capacity utilization in industry has been falling for five months.”

Mr Christensen said the rate rise in itself is relatively harmless. The real tightening kicked off two years ago when the Fed began to slow its $85bn of bond purchases each month. This squeezed liquidity through the classic quantity of money effect.

Fed tapering slowly turned off the spigot for a global financial system running on a “dollar standard”, with an estimated $9 trillion of foreign debt in US currency. China imported US tightening through its dollar-peg, compounding the slowdown already under way.

It was the delayed effect of this crunch that has caused the “broad” dollar index to rocket by 19pc since July 2014, the steepest dollar rise in modern times. It is a key cause of the bloodbath for commodities and emerging markets.

Mr Christensen said the saving grace this time is that Fed has given clear assurances – like the Bank of England – that it will roll over its $4.5 trillion balance sheet for a long time to come, rather than winding back quantitative easing and risking monetary contraction.

This pledge more than offsets the rate rise itself, which was priced into the market long ago. Chairman Janet Yellen softened the blow further with dovish guidance, repeating the word “gradual” a dozen times.

So no I don’t think the hike is a disaster, but I don’t understand the Fed’s rational for doing this – nominal spending growth is slightly soft, inflation is way below the target, money supply and money base growth is moderate, the dollar is strong and getting stronger and inflation expectations are low and have been coming down.

So if anything across the board monetary indicators are pointing towards the need for easing of monetary conditions – at least if you want to maintain some credibility about the 2% inflation target and or keep nominal GDP growth on the post-2009 4% path.

But I guess this is because Janet Yellen fundamentally has the same model in her head as Arthur Burns had in the 1970s – its is all about a old-style Phillips Curve and I predict that Yellen is making a policy mistake in the same way Burns did in the 1970s – just in the opposite direction and (much) less extreme.

PS some Fed officials are obviously also concerned with the risk of asset market bubbles, but the Fed shouldn’t concern itself with such things (and by the way I don’t think there is any bubbles other than in the market for people concerning themselves with bubbles.)


Yellen is transforming the US economy into her favourite textbook model

When you read the standard macroeconomic textbook you will be introduced to different macroeconomic models and the characteristics of these models are often described as keynesian and classical/monetarist. In the textbook version it is said that keynesians believe that prices and wages are rigid, while monetarist/classical economist believe wages and prices are fully flexible. This really is nonsense – monetarist economists do NOT argue that prices are fully flexible neither did pre-keynesian classical economists. As a result the textbook dictum between different schools is wrong.

I would instead argue that the key element in understanding the different “scenarios” we talk about in the textbook is differences in monetary regimes. Hence, in my view there are certain monetary policy rules that would make the world look “keynesian”, while other monetary policy rules would make the world look “classical”. As I have stated earlier – No ‘General Theory’ should ignore the monetary policy rule.

The standard example is fixed exchange rates versus floating exchange rates regimes. In a fixed exchange rate regime – with rigid prices and wages – the central bank will use monetary policy to ensure a fixed exchange and hence will not offset any shocks to aggregate demand. As a result a tightening of fiscal policy will cause aggregate demand to drop. This would make the world look “keynesian”.

On the other hand under a floating exchange rate regime with for example inflation targeting (or NGDP targeting) a tightening of fiscal policy will initially cause a drop in aggregate demand, which will cause a drop in inflation expectations, but as the central bank is targeting a fixed rate of inflation it will ease monetary policy to offset the fiscal tightening. This mean that the world becomes “classical”.

We here see that it is not really about price rigidities, but rather about the monetary regime. This also means that when we discuss fiscal multipliers – whether or not fiscal policy has an impact on aggregate demand – it is crucial to understand what monetary policy rule we have.

In this regard it is also very important to understand that the monetary policy rule is not necessarily credible and that markets’ expectations about the monetary policy rule can change over time as a result of the actions and communication of the central and that that will cause the ‘functioning’ the economy to change. Hence, we can imagine that one day the economy is “classical” (and stable) and the next day the economy becomes “keynesian” (and unstable).

Yellen is a keynesian – unfortunately

I fear that what is happening right now in the US economy is that we are moving from a “classical” world – where the Federal Reserve was following a fairly well-defined rule (the Bernanke-Evans rule) and was using a fairly well-defined (though not optimal) monetary policy instrument (money base control) – and to a much less rule based monetary policy regime where first of all the target for monetary policy is changing and equally important that the Fed’s monetary policy instrument is changing.

When I listen to Janet Yellen speak it leaves me with the impression of a 1970s style keynesian who strongly believes that inflation is not a monetary phenomena, but rather is a result of a Phillips curve relationship where lower unemployment will cause wage inflation, which in turn will cause price inflation.

It is also clear that Yellen is extraordinarily uncomfortable about thinking about monetary policy in terms of money creation (money base control) and only think of monetary policy in terms of controlling the interest rate. And finally Yellen is essentially telling us that she (and the Fed) are better at forecasting than the markets as she continues to downplay in the importance of the fact that inflation expectations have dropped markedly recently.

This is very different from the views of Ben Bernanke who at least at the end of his term as Fed chairman left the impression that he was conducting monetary policy within a fairly well-defined framework, which included a clear commitment to offset shocks to aggregate demand. As a result the Bernanke ensured that the US economy – like during the Great Moderation – basically became “classical”. That was best illustrated during the “fiscal cliff”-episode in 2013 where major fiscal tightening did not cause the contraction in the US economy forecasted by keynesians like Paul Krugman.

However, as a result of Yellen’s much less rule based approach to monetary policy I am beginning to think that if we where to have a fiscal cliff style event today (it could for example be a Chinese meltdown) then the outcome would be a lot less benign than in 2011.

How a negative shock would play with Yellen in charge of the Fed

Imagine that the situation in China continues to deteriorate and develop into a significant downturn for the Chinese economy. How should we expect the Yellen-fed to react? First of all a “China shock” would be visible in lower market inflation expectations. However, Yellen would likely ignore that.

She has already told us she doesn’t really trust the market to tell us about future inflation. Instead Yellen would focus on the US labour market and since the labour market is a notoriously lagging indicator the labour market would tell her that everything is fine – even after the shock hit. As a result she would likely not move in terms of monetary policy before the shock would show up in the unemployment data.

Furthermore, Yellen would also be a lot less willing than Bernanke was to use money base control as the monetary policy instrument and rather use the interest rate as the monetary policy instrument. Given the fact that we are presently basically stuck at the Zero Lower Bound Yellen would likely conclude that she really couldn’t do much about the shock and instead argue that fiscal policy should be use to offset the “China shock”.

All this means that we now have introduced a new “rigidity” in the US economy. It is a “rigidity” in the Fed monetary policy rule, which means that monetary policy will not offset negative shocks to US aggregate demand.

If the market realizes this – and I believe that is actually what might be happening right now – then the financial markets might not work as the stabilizing factoring in the US economy that it was in 2013 during the fiscal cliff-event and as a result the US economy is becoming more “keynesian” and therefore also a less stable US economy.

Only a 50% keynesian economy

However, Yellen’s economy is only a 50% keynesian economy. Hence, imagine instead of a negative “China shock” we had a major easing of US fiscal policy, which would cause US aggregate demand to pick up sharply. Once that would cause US unemployment to drop Yellen would move to hike interest rates. Obviously the markets would realize this once the fiscal easing would be announced and as a result the pick up in aggregate demand would be offset by the expected monetary tightening, which would be visible in a stronger dollar, a flattening of the yield curve and a drop in equity prices.

In that sense the fiscal multiplier would be zero when fiscal policy is eased, but it would be positive when fiscal policy is tightened.

What Yellen should do 

I am concerned that Yellen’s old-school keynesian approach to monetary policy – adaptive expectations, the Phillips curve and reliance of interest rates as a policy instrument – is introducing a lot more instability in the US economy and might move us away from the nominal stability that Bernanke (finally) was able to ensure towards the end of his terms as Fed chairman.

But it don’t have to be like that. Here is what I would recommend that Yellen should do:

Introduce a clear target for monetary policy

  • Since Mid-2009 US nominal GDP has grown along a nearly straight 4% path (see here). Yellen should make that official policy as this likely also would ensure inflation close to 2% and overall stable demand growth, which would mean that shocks to aggregate demand “automatically” would be offset. It would so to speak make the US economy “classical” and stable.

Make monetary policy forward-looking

  • Instead of focusing on labour conditions and a backward-looking Phillips curve Yellen should focus on forward-looking indicators. The best thing would obviously be to look at market indicators for nominal GDP growth, but as we do not have those at least the Fed should focus on market expectations for inflation combined with surveys of future nominal GDP growth. The Fed should completely give up making its own forecasts and particularly the idea that FOMC members are making forecasts for the US economy seems to be counter-productive (today FOMC members make up their minds about what they want to do and then make a forecast to fit that decision).

Forget about interest rates – monetary policy is about money base control

  • With interest rates essentially stuck at the Zero Lower Bound it becomes impossible to ease monetary policy by using the interest rate “instrument”. In fact interest rates can never really be an “instrument”. It can be a way of communicating, but the actual monetary policy instrument will alway be the money base, which is under the full control of the Federal Reserve. It is about time that the Fed stop talking about money base control in discretionary terms (as QE1, QE2 etc.) and instead start to talk about setting a target for money base growth to hit the ultimate target of monetary policy (4% NGDP level targeting) and let interest rates be fully market determined.

I am not optimistic that the Fed is likely to move in this direction anytime soon and rather I fear that monetary policy is set to become even more discretionary and that the downside risks to the US economy has increased as Yellen’s communication is making it less likely that the markets will trust her to offset negative shocks to the US economy. The Keynesians got what they asked for – a keynesian economy.

PS I have earlier had a similar discussion regarding the euro zone. See here. That post was very much inspired by Brad Delong and Larry Summers’ paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy.

PPS I would also blame Stanley Fischer – who I regret to say thought would make a good Fed chairman – for a lot of what is happening right now. While Stanley Fischer was the governor of the Bank of Israel he was essentially a NGDP targeting central banker, but now he seems preoccupied with “macroprudential” analysis, which is causing him to advocate monetary tightening at a time where the US economy does not need it.

PPPS I realize that my characterization of Janet Yellen partly is a caricature, but relative to Ben Bernanke and in terms of what this means for market expectations I believe the characterization is fair.

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: For US readers note that I will be “touring” the US in the end of October.

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