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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Time for the Fed to introduce a forward-looking McCallum rule

Earlier this week Boston Fed chief Eric Rosengreen in an interview on CNBC said that the Federal Reserve could introduce a forth round of quantitative easing – QE4 – since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 if the outlook for the US economy worsens.

I have quite mixed emotions about Rosengreen’s comments. I would of course welcome an increase in money base growth – what the Fed and others like to call quantitative easing – if it is necessary to ensure nominal stability in the US economy.

However, the way Rosengreen and the Fed in general is framing the use of quantitative easing in my view is highly problematic.

First of all when the fed is talking about quantitative easing it is speaking of it as something “unconventional”. However, there is nothing unconventional about using money base control to conduct monetary policy. What is unconventional is actually to use the language of interest rate targeting as the primary monetary policy “instrument”.

Second, the Fed continues to conduct monetary policy in a quasi-discretionary fashion – acting as a fire fighter putting out financial and economic fires it helped start itself.

The solution: Use the money base as an instrument to hit a 4% NGDP level target

I have praised the Fed for having moved closer to a rule based monetary policy in recent years, but the recent escalating distress in the US financial markets and particularly the marked drop in US inflation expectations show that the present monetary policy framework is far from optimal. I realize that the root of the recent distress likely is European and Chinese rather than American, but the fact that US inflation expectations also have dropped shows that the present monetary policy framework in the US is not functioning well-enough.

I, however, think that the Fed could improve the policy framework dramatically with a few adjustments to its present policy.

First of all the Fed needs to completely stop thinking about and communicating about its monetary stance in terms of setting an interest rate target. Instead the Fed should only communicate in terms of money base control.

The most straightforward way to do that is that at each FOMC meeting a monthly growth rate for the money base is announced. The announced monthly growth rate can be increased or decreased at every FOMC-meeting if needed to hit the Fed’s ultimate policy target.

Using “the” interest rate as a policy “instrument” is not necessarily a major problem when the “natural interest rate” for example is 4 or 5%, but if the natural interest rate is for example 1 or 2% and there is major slack in the economy and quasi-deflationary expectations then you again and again will run into a problem that the Fed hits the Zero Lower Bound everything even a small shock hits the economy. That creates an unnecessary degree of uncertainly about the outlook for monetary policy and a natural deflationary bias to monetary policy.

I frankly speaking have a hard time understanding why central bankers are so obsessed about communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rate targeting rather than money base control, but I can only think it is because their favourite Keynesian models – both ‘old’ and ‘new’ – are “moneyless”.

I have earlier argued that the Fed since the summer of 2009 effectively has target 4% nominal GDP growth (level targeting). One can obviously argue that that has been too tight a monetary policy stance, but we have now seen considerable real adjustments in the US economy so even if the US economy likely could benefit from higher NGDP growth for a couple of year I would pragmatically suggest that the time has come to let bygones-be-bygones and make a 4% NGDP level target an official Fed target.

Alternatively the Fed could once every year announce its NGDP target for the coming five years based on an estimate for potential real GDP growth and the Fed’s 2% inflation target. So if the Fed thinks potential real GDP growth in the US in the coming five years is 2% then it would target 4% NGDP growth. If it thinks potential RGDP growth is 1.5% then it would target 3.5% growth.

However, it is important that the Fed targets a path level rather than the growth rate. Therefore, if the Fed undershoots the targeted level one year it would have to bring the NGDP level back to the targeted level as fast as possible.

Finally it is important to realize that the Fed should not be targeting the present level of NGDP, but rather the future level of NGDP. Therefore, when the FOMC sets the monthly growth rate of the money base it needs to know whether NGDP is ‘on track’ or not. Therefore a forecast for future NGDP is needed.

The way I – pragmatically – would suggest the FOMC handled this is that the FOMC should publish three forecasts based on three different methods for NGDP two years ahead.

The first forecast should be a forecast prepared by the Fed’s own economists.

The second forecast should be a survey of professional forecasts.

And finally the third forecast should be a ‘market forecast’. Scott Sumner has of course suggested creating a NGDP future, which the Fed could target or use as a forecasting tool. This I believe would be the proper ‘market forecast’. However, I also believe that a ‘synthetic’ NGDP future can relatively easily be created with a bit of econometric work and the input from market inflation expectations, the US stock market, a dollar index and commodity prices. In fact it is odd no Fed district has not already undertaken this task.

An idealised policy process

To sum up how could the Fed change the policy process to dramatically improve nominal stability and reduce monetary policy discretion?

It would be a two-step procedure at each FOMC meeting.

First, the FOMC would look at the three different forecasts for the NGDP level two-years ahead. These forecasts would then be compared to the targeted level of NGDP in two year.

The FOMC statement after the policy decision the three forecast should be presented and it should be made clear whether they are above or below the NGDP target level. This would greatly increase policy-making discipline. The FOMC members would be more or less forced to follow the “policy recommendation” implied by the forecasts for the NGDP level.

Second, the FOMC would decide on the monthly money base growth rate and it is clear that it follows logically that if the NGDP forecasts are below (above) the NGDP level target then the money base growth rate would have to be increased (decreased).

It think the advantages of this policy process would be enormous compared to the present quasi-discretionary and eclectic process and it would greatly move the Fed towards a truly rule-based monetary policy.

Furthermore, the process would be easily understood by the markets and by commentators alike and it would in no way be in conflict with the Fed’s official dual mandate as I strongly believe that such a set-up would both ensure price stability – defined as 2% inflation over the cycle – and “maximum employment”.

And finally back to the headline – “Time for the Fed to introduce a forward McCallum rule”. What I essentially have suggested above is that the Fed should introduce a forward-looking version of the McCallum rule. Bennett McCallum obviously originally formulated his rule in backward-looking terms (and in growth terms rather than in level terms), but I am sure that Bennett will forgive me for trying to formulate his rule in forward-looking terms.

PS if the ECB followed the exactly same rule as I have suggested above then the euro crisis would come to an end more or less immediately.



Did Bennett McCallum run the SNB for the last 20 years?

Which central bank has conducted monetary policy in the best way in the last five years? Among “major” central banks the answer in my view clearly would have to be the SNB – the Swiss central bank.

Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that you should judge a central bank’s performance on it’s ability to deliver nominal stability – for example hitting an nominal GDP level target. However, for an small very open economy like the Swiss it might make sense to look at Nominal Gross Domestic Demand (NGDD).

This is Swiss NGDD over the past 20 years.

NGDD Switzerland

Notice here how fast the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual NGDD level and the trend) closed after the 2008 shock. Already in 2010 NGDD was brought back to the 1993-trend and has since then NGDD has been kept more or less on the 1993-trend path.

Officially the SNB is not targeting NGDD, but rather “price stability” defined as keeping inflation between 0 and 2%. This has been the official policy since 2000, but at least judging from the actually development the policy might as well have been a policy to keep NGDD on a 2-3% growth path. 

Bennett McCallum style monetary policy is the key to success

So why have the SNB been so successful?

My answer is that the SNB – knowingly or unknowingly – has followed Bennett McCallum’s advice on how central banks in small open economies should conduct monetary policy. Bennett has particularly done research that is relevant to understand how the SNB has been conducting monetary policy over the past 20 years.

First, of all Bennett is a pioneer of NGDP targeting and he was recommending NGDP targeting well-before anybody ever heard of Scott Summer or Market Monetarism.  A difference between Market Monetarists and Bennett’s position is that Market Monetarists generally recommend level targeting, while Bennett (generally) has been recommending growth targeting.

Second, Bennett has always forcefully argued that monetary policy is effective in terms of determining NGDP (or NGDD) also when interest rates are at zero and he has done a lot of work on optimal monetary policy rules at the Zero Lower Bound (See for example here). One obvious policy is quantitative easing. This is what Bennett stressed in his early work on NGDP growth targeting.  Hence, the so-called Mccallum rule is defined in terms the central bank controlling the money base to hit a given NGDP growth target. However, for small open economies Bennett has also done very interesting work on the use of the exchange rate as a monetary policy tool when interest rates are close to zero.

I earlier discussed what Bennett has called a MC rule. According to the MC rule the central bank will basically use interest rates as the key monetary policy rule. However, as the policy interest rate gets close to zero the central bank will start giving guidance on the exchange rate to change monetary conditions. In his models Bennett express the policy instrument (“Monetary Conditions”) as a combination of a weighted average of the nominal exchange rate and a monetary policy interest rate.

SNB’s McCallum rule

My position is that basically we can discribe SNB’s monetary policy over the past 20 years based on these two key McCallum insights – NGDP targeting and the use of a combination of interest rates and the exchange rate as the policy instrument.

To illustrate that I have estimated a simple OLS regression model for Swiss interest rates.

It turns out that it is very to easy to model SNB’s reaction function for the last 20 years. Hence, I can explain 85% of the variation in the Swiss 3-month LIBOR rate since 1996 with only two variables – the nominal effective exchange rate (NEER) and the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual level of Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and the trend level of NGDD). Both variables are expressed in natural logarithms (ln).

The graph below shows the actually 3-month LIBOR rate and the estimated rate.

SNB policy rule

As the graph shows the fit is quite good and account well for the ups and down in Swiss interest rates since 1996 (the model also works fairly well for an even longer period). It should be noted that I have done the model for purely illustrative purposes and I have not tested for causality or the stability of the coefficients in the model. However, overall I think the fit is so good that this is a pretty good account of actual Swiss monetary policy in the last 15-20 years.

I think it is especially notable that once interest rates basically hit zero in early 2010 the SNB initially started to intervene in the currency markets to keep the Swiss franc from strengthening and later – in September 2011 – the SNB moved to put a floor under EUR/CHF at 120 so to completely curb the strengthening of Swiss franc beyond that level. As a result the nominal exchange rate effectively has been flat since September 2011 (after an initial 10% devaluation) despite massive inflows to Switzerland in connection with the euro crisis and rate of expansion in the Swiss money supply has accelerated significantly.

Concluding, Swiss monetary policy has very much been conducted in the spirit of Bennett McCallum – the SNB has effectively targeted (the level of) Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and SNB has effectively used the exchange rate instrument to ease monetary conditions with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound.

The result is that the Swiss economy only had a very short period of crisis in 2008-9 and the economy has recovered nicely since then. Unfortunately none of the other major central banks of the world have followed the advice from Bennett McCallum and as a result we are still stuck in crisis in both Europe and the US.

PS I am well-aware that the discuss above is a as-if discussion that this is what the SNB has actually said it was doing, but rather that it might as well been officially have had a McCallum set-up.  

PPS If one really wants to do proper econometric research on Swiss monetary policy I think one should run a VAR model on the 3-month LIBOR rate, the NGDD gap and NEER and all of the variables de-trended with a HP-filter. I will leave that to somebody with econometric skills and time than myself. But I doubt it would change much with the conclusions.

Does China target NGDP?

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

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

Here is the abstract:

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

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

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

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

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