Time to end discretionary monetary policy!

This week has been nearly 100% about monetary policy in the financial markets and in the international financial media. In fact since 2008 monetary policy has been the main driver of prices in basically all asset classes. In the markets the main job of investors is to guess what the ECB or the Federal Reserve will do next. However, the problem is that there is tremendous uncertainty about what the central banks will do and this uncertainty is multi-dimensional. Hence, the question is not only whether XYZ central bank will ease monetary policy or not, but also about how it will do it.

Just take Mario Draghi’s press conference last week – he had to read out numerous different communiqués and he had to introduce completely new monetary concepts – just take OMT. OMT means Outright Monetary Transactions – not exactly a term you will find in the monetary theory textbook. And he also had to come up with completely new quasi-monetary institutions – just take the ESM. The ESM is the European Stability Mechanism. This is not really necessary and it just introduce completely unnecessary uncertainty about European monetary policy.

In reality monetary policy is extremely simple. Central bankers can fundamentally do two things. First, the central bank can increase or decrease the money base and second it can guide expectations. It is really simple. There is no reason for ESM, OMT, QE3 etc. The problem, however, is that central banks used to control the money base and expectations with interest rates, but with interest rates close to zero central bankers around the world seem to have lost the ability to communicate about what they want to do. As a result monetary policy has become extremely discretionary in both Europe and the US.

That need to change as this discretion is at the core the uncertainty about monetary policy. Central bankers therefore have to do two things to get back on track and to create some kind of normality. First, central banks should define very clear targets of what the want to achieve – preferably the ECB and the Fed should announce nominal GDP targets, but other target might do as well. Second, the central banks should give up communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates and rather communicate in terms of how much they want to change the money base.

In terms of changes in the money base the central banks should clarify how the money base is changed. The central bank can increase the money base, by buying different assets such as government bonds, foreign currencies, commodities or stocks. The important thing is that the central banks do not try to affect relative prices in the financial markets. When the Fed is conducting it “twist operations” it is trying to distort relative prices, which essentially is a form of central planning and has little to do with monetary policy. Therefore, the best the central banks could do is to define a clear basket of assets it will be buying or selling to increase or decrease the money base. This could be a fixed basket of bonds, currencies, commodities and stocks – or it could just be short-term government bonds. The important thing is that the central bank define a clear instrument.

This would remove the “instrument uncertainty” and the ECB or the Fed would not have to come up with new weird instruments every single month. Rather for example the Fed could just start at every regular FOMC meetings to state for example that “the expectations is now that without changes in our policy instrument we will undershoot our policy target and as a consequence we today have decided to use our policy instrument to increase the money base by X dollars to ensure that we will hit our policy target within the next 12 months. We will increase the money base further if contrary to our expectations policy target is not meet.” 

In this world there would be no discretion at all – the central bank would be strictly rule following. It would use its well-defined policy instrument to always hit the policy target and there would be no problems with zero bound interest rates. But most important it would allow the financial markets to do most of the lifting as such set-up would be tremendously more transparent than what they are doing today.

Today we will see whether Ben Bernanke want to continue distorting relative prices and maintaining policy uncertainty by keeping the Fed’s highly discretionary habits or whether he want to ensure a target and rules based monetary policy.

PS a possibility would of course also be to use NGDP futures to conduct monetary policy as Scott Sumner has suggested, but that nearly seems like science fiction given the extreme conservatism of the world’s major central banks.


“Nominal Income Targeting” on Wikipedia

First Market Monetarism hit Wikipedia and now it is “Nominal Income Targeting”. It is interesting stuff. So take a look. However, the writer(s) obviously has a Market Monetarist background of some kind (and no, it is not me…). This is obviously nice, but it should be noted that Nominal Income Targeting has quite long history in the economic literature pre-dating Market Monetarism and that in my view should be reflected on the “Nominal Income Targeting”-page on Wikipedia. I also miss the link to the Free Banking literature. Furthermore, there should be cross references to other monetary policy rules such as price level targeting and inflation targeting. But the great thing about Wikipedia is that these texts over time improves…

Anyway, it is nice to see NI targeting on Wikipedia. Keep up the good work those of you who are doing the hard work on Wikipedia texts.

Woolsey on DeLong on NGDP Targeting

Interestingly enough both Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have now come out in favour of NGDP level targeting. Hence, the policy recommendation from these two Keynesian giants are the same as from the Market Monetarist bloggers, but even though the Keynesians now agree with our policy recommendation on monetary policy in the US the theoretical differences are still massive. Both Krugman and DeLong stress the need for fiscal easing in the US. Market Monetarists do not think fiscal policy will be efficient and we are in general skeptical about expanding the role of government in the economy.

Bill Woolsey has an excellent comment on Brad Delong’s support for NGDP targeting. Read it here.

Despite theoretical differences it is interesting how broad based the support for NGDP level targeting is becoming among US based economists (In Europe we don’t have that sort of debate…we are just Calvinist…)

Beckworth’s NGDP Targeting links

Here is David Beckworth:

“Since nominal GDP level targeting seems to be really taking off now, I thought it would be useful to provide some links to past discussions here and elsewhere on the topic. Let me know in the comments section other pieces I should add to the lists.”

See David’s useful list of links on NGDP Level Targeting here.

And here is a link to one of my own stories on NGDP Targeting.

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”

Market Monetarists are often misunderstood to think that monetary policy should “stimulate” growth and that monetary policy is like a joystick that can be used to fine-tune the economic development. Our view is in fact rather the opposite. Most Market Monetarists believe that the economy should be left to its own devises and that the more policy makers stay out of the “game” the better as we in general believe that the market rather than governments ensure the most efficient allocation of resources.

Exactly because we believe more in the market than in fine-tuning and government intervention we stress how important it is for monetary policy to provide a transparent, stable and predictable “nominal anchor”. A nominal GDP target could be such an anchor. A price level target could be another.

Traditional monetarists used to think that central banks should provide a stable nominal anchor through a fixed money supply growth rule. Market Monetarists do not disagree with the fundamental thinking behind this. We, however, are sceptical about money supply targeting because of technical and regulatory develops mean that velocity is not constant and because we from time to time see shocks to money demand – as for example during the Great Recession.

A way to illustrate this is the equation of exchange:


If the traditional monetarist assumption hold and V (velocity) is constant then the traditional monetarist rule of a constant growth rate of M equals the Market Monetarist call for a constant growth rate of nominal GDP (PY). There is another crucial difference and that is that Market Monetarists are in favour of targeting the level of PY, while traditional monetarists favours a target of the growth of M. That means that a NGDP level rule has “memory” – if the target overshots one period then growth in NGDP need to be higher the following period.

In the light in the Great Recession what US based Market Monetarists like Bill Woolsey or Scott Sumner have been calling for is basically that M should be expanded to make up for the drop in V we have seen on the back of the Great Recession and bring PY back to its old level path. This is not “stimulus” in the traditional Keynesian sense. Rather it is about re-establishing the “old” monetary equilibrium.

In some way Market Monetarists are to blame for the misunderstandings themselves as they from time to time are calling for “monetary stimulus” and have supported QE1 and QE2. However, in the Market Monetarists sense “monetary stimulus” basically means to fill the whole created by the drop in velocity and while Market Monetarists have supported QE1 and QE2 they have surely been very critical about how quantitative easing has been conducted in the US by the Federal Reserve.

Another way to address the issue is to say that the task of the central bank is to ensure “monetary neutrality”. Normally economists talk about monetary neutrality in a “positive” sense meaning that monetary policy cannot affect real GDP growth and employment in the long run. However, “monetary neutrality” can also be see in a “normative” sense to mean that monetary policy should not influence the allocation of economic resource. The central bank ensures monetary neutrality in a normative sense by always ensuring that the growth of money supply equals that growth of the money demand.

George Selgin and other Free Banking theorists have shown that in a Free Banking world where the money supply has been privatised the money supply is perfectly elastic to changes in money demand. In a Free Banking world an “automatic” increase in M will compensate for any drop V and visa versa. So in that sense a NGDP level target is basically committing the central bank to emulate the Free Banking (the Free Market) outcome in monetary matters.

The believe in the market rather than in “centralized control mechanisms” is also illustrated by the fact that Market Monetarists advocate using market indicators and preferably NGDP futures in the conduct of monetary policy rather than the central bank’s own subjective forecasts. In a world where monetary policy is linked to NGDP futures (or other market prices) the central bank basically do not need a research department to make forecasts. The market will take care of that. In fact monetary policy monetary policy will be completely automatic in the same way a gold standard or a fixed exchange rate policy is “automatic”.

Therefore Market Monetarists are certainly not Keynesian interventionist, but rather Free Banking Theorists that accept that central banks do exists – for now at least. If one wants to take the argument even further one could argue that NGDP level targeting is the first step toward the total privatisation of the money supply.




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