Rerun: Daylight saving time and NGDP targeting

Today I got up one hour later than normal. The reason is the same as for most other Europeans this morning – the last Sunday of October – we move our clocks back one hour due to the end of Daylight saving time (summertime).

That reminded me of Milton Friedman’s so-called Daylight saving argument for floating exchange rates. According to Friedman, the argument in favour of flexible exchange rates is in many ways the same as that for summertime. Instead of changing the clocks to summertime, everyone could instead “just” change their behaviour: meet an hour later at work, change programme times on the TV, let buses and trains run an hour later, etc. The reason we do not do this is precisely because it is easier and more practical to put clocks an hour forward than to change everyone’s behaviour at the same time. It is the same with exchange rates, one can either change countless prices or change just one – the exchange rate.

There is a similar argument in favour of NGDP level targeting. Lets illustrate it with the equation of exchange.


P*Y is of course the same as NGDP the equation of exchange can also be written as


What Market Monetarists are arguing is that if we hold NGDP constant (or it grows along a constant path) then any shock to velocity (V) should be counteracted by an increase or decrease in the money supply (M).

Obviously one could just keep M constant, but then any shock to V would feed directly through to NGDP, but NGDP is not “one number” – it is in fact made up of countless goods and prices. So an “accommodated” shock to V in fact necessitates changing numerous prices (and volumes for the matter). By having a NGDP level target the money supply will do the adjusting instead and no prices would have to change. Monetary policy would therefore by construction be neutral – as it would not influence relative prices and volumes in the economy.

This is of course also similar to Milton Friedman’s analogy of monetary policy being like setting a thermostat (HT David Beckworth).

The conclusion therefore is that when you read Friedman’s “The Case for Floating Exchange Rates” then try think instead of “The Case for NGDP Level Targeting” – it is really the same story.

See my posts on Friedman’s arguments for floating exchange rates:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3

PS Do you remember reading this before then you are right – this is a rerun of what I wrote exactly a year ago.


“Money neutrality” – normative rather than positive

When we study macroeconomic theory we are that we are taught about “money neutrality”. Normally money neutrality is seen as a certain feature of a given model. In traditional monetarist models monetary policy is said to be neutral in the long run, but not in the short run, while in Real Business Cycle (RBC) models money is (normally) said to be neutral in both the long and the short run. In that sense “money neutrality” can be said to be a positive (rather than as normative) concept, which mostly is dependent on the assumptions in the models about degree of price and wage rigidity.

As a positive concept money is said to be neutral when changes in the money supply only impacts nominal variables such as prices, nominal GDP, wages and the exchange rates, but has no real variables such are real GDP and employment. However, I would suggest a different interpretation of money neutrality and that is as a normative concept.

Monetary policy should ensure money neutrality

Normally the discussion of money neutrality completely disregard the model assumptions about the monetary policy rule. However, in my view the assumption about the monetary policy rule is crucial to whether money is neutral or not.

Hayek already discussed this in classic book on business cycle theory Prices and Production in 1931 – I quote here from Greg Ransom’s excellent blog “Taking Hayek Serious”:

“In order to preserve, in a money economy, the tendencies towards a stage of equilibrium which are described by general economic theory, it would be necessary to secure the existence of all the conditions, which the theory of neutral money has to establish. It is however very probable that this is practically impossible. It will be necessary to take into account the fact that the existence of a generally used medium of exchange will always lead to the existence of long-term contracts in terms of this medium of exchange, which will have been concluded in the expectation of a certain future price level. It may further be necessary to take into account the fact that many other prices possess a considerable degree of rigidity and will be particularly difficult to reduce. All these ” frictions” which obstruct the smooth adaptation of the price system to changed conditions, which would be necessary if the money supply were to be kept neutral, are of course of the greatest importance for all practical problems of monetary policy. And it may be necessary to seek for a compromise between two aims which can be realized only alternatively: the greatest possible realization of the forces working toward a state of equilibrium, and the avoidance of excessive frictional resistance.  But it is important to realize fully that in this case the elimination of the active influence of money [on all relative prices, the time structure of production, and the relations between production, consumption, savings and investment], has ceased to be the only, or even a fully realizable, purpose of monetary policy. ”

The true relationship between the theoretical concept of neutral money, and the practical ideal of monetary policy is, therefore, that the former provides one criterion for judging the latter; the degree to which a concrete system approaches the condition of neutrality is one and perhaps the most important, but not the only criterion by which one has to judge the appropriateness of a given course of policy. It is quite conceivable that a distortion of relative prices and a misdirection of production by monetary influences could only be avoided if, firstly, the total money stream remained constant, and secondly, all prices were completely flexible, and, thirdly, all long term contracts were based on a correct anticipation of future price movements. This would mean that, if the second and third conditions are not given, the ideal could not be realized by any kind of monetary policy.”

Hence according to Hayek monetary policy should ensure monetary neutrality, which is “a stage of equilibrium which are described by general economic theory”. In Prices and Production Hayek describes this in terms of a Walrasian general equilibrium. Therefore, the monetary policy should not distort relative prices and hence monetary policy should be conducted in a way to ensure that relative prices are as close as possible to what they would have been in a world with no money and no frictions – the Walrasian economy.

As I have discussed in a numerous posts before such a policy is NGDP level targeting. See for example herehere and here.

And this is why the RBC model worked fine during the Great Moderation

If we instead think of monetary policy as a normative concept then it so much more obvious why monetary policy suddenly has become so central in all macroeconomic discussions the last four years and why it did not seem to play any role during the Great Moderation.

Hence, during the Great Moderation US monetary policy was conducted as if the Federal Reserve had an NGDP level targeting. That – broadly speaking – ensured money neutrality and as a consequence the US economy resembled the Walrasian ideal. In this world real GDP would more or less move up and down with productivity shocks and other supply shocks and the prices level would move inversely to these shocks. This pretty much is the Real Business Cycle model. This model is a very useful model when the central bank gets it right, but the when the central bank fails the RBC is pretty useless.

Since 2008 monetary policy has no longer followed ensured nominal stability and as a result we have moved away from the Walrasian ideal and today the US economy therefore better can be described as something that resembles a traditional monetarist model, where money is no longer neutral. What have changed is not the structures of the US economy or the degree of rigidities in the US product and labour markets, but rather the fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

This also illustrates why the causality seemed to be running from prices and NGDP to money during the Great Moderation, but now the causality seem to have become (traditional) monetarist again and money supply data once again seems to be an useful indicator of future changes in NGDP and prices.

The counterfactual US inflation history – the case of NGDP targeting

Opponents of NGDP level targeting often accuse Market Monetarists of being “inflationists” and of being in favour of reflating bubbles. Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact we are strong proponents of sound money and nominal stability. I will try to illustrate that with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that that the Federal Reserve had a strict NGDP level targeting regime in place for the past 20 years with NGDP growing 5% year in and year out. What would inflation then have been?

This kind of counterfactual history excise is obviously not easy to conduct, but I will try nonetheless. Lets start out with a definition:


where NGDP is nominal GDP, RGDP is real GDP and P is the price level. It follows from (1) that:


In our counterfactual calculation we will assume the NGDP would have grown 5% year-in and year-out over the last 20 years. Instead of using actual RGDP growth we RGDP growth we will use data for potential RGDP as calculated Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – as the this is closer to the path RGDP growth would have followed under NGDP targeting than the actual growth of RGDP.

As potential RGDP has not been constant in the US over paste 20 years the counterfactual inflation rate would have varied inversely with potential RGDP growth under a 5% NGDP targeting rule. As potential RGDP growth accelerates – as during the tech revolution during the 1990s – inflation would ease. This is obviously contrary to inflation targeting – where the central bank would ease monetary policy in response to higher potential RGDP growth. This is exactly what happened in the US during the 1990s.

The graph below shows the “counterfactual inflation rate” (what inflation would have been under strict NGDP targeting) and the actual inflation rate (GDP deflator).

The graph fairly clearly shows that actual US inflation during the Great Moderation (from 1992 to 2007 in the graph) pretty much followed an NGDP targeting ideal. Hence, inflation declined during the 1990s during the tech driven boost to US productivity growth. From around 2000 to 2007 inflation inched up as productivity growth slowed.

Hence, during the Great Moderation monetary policy nearly followed an NGDP targeting rule – but not totally.

At two points in time actual inflation became significantly higher than it would have been under a strict NGDP targeting rule – in 1999-2001 and 2004-2007.

This of course coincides with the two “bubbles” in the US economy over the past 20 years – the tech bubble in the late 1990s and the property bubble in the years just prior to the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

Market Monetarists disagree among each other about the extent of bubbles particularly in 2004-2007. Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes have stressed that there was no economy wide bubble, while David Beckworth argues that too easy monetary policy created a bubble in the years just prior to 2008. My own position probably has been somewhere in-between these two views. However, my counterfactual inflation history indicates that the Beckworth view is the right one. This view also plays a central role in the new Market Monetarist book “Boom and Bust Banking: The Causes and Cures of the Great Recession”, which David has edited. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz have a similar view.

Hence, if anything monetary policy would have been tighter in the late 1990s and and from 2004-2008 than actually was the case if the fed had indeed had a strict NGDP targeting rule. This in my view is an illustration that NGDP seriously reduces the risk of bubbles.

The Great Recession – the fed’s failure to keep NGDP on track 

According to the CBO’s numbers potential RGDP growth started to slow in 2007 and had the fed had a strict NGDP targeting rule at the time then inflation should have been allowed to increase above 3.5%. Even though I am somewhat skeptical about CBO’s estimate for potential RGDP growth it is clear that the fed would have allowed inflation to increase in 2007-2008. Instead the fed effective gave up 20 years of quasi NGDP targeting and as a result the US economy entered the biggest crisis after the Great Depression. The graph clearly illustrates how tight monetary conditions became in 2008 compared to what would have been the case if the fed had not discontinued the defacto NGDP targeting regime.

So yes, Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy in the US became far too tight in 2008 and that significant monetary easing still is warranted (actual inflation is way below the counterfactual rate of inflation), but Market Monetarists – if we had been blogging during the two “bubble episodes” – would also have favoured tighter rather than easier monetary policy during these episodes.

So NGDP targeting is not a recipe for inflation, but rather an cure against bubbles. Therefore, NGDP targeting should be endorsed by anybody who favours sound money and nominal stability and despise monetary induced boom-bust cycles.

Related posts:

Boom, bust and bubbles
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative

Markets are telling us where NGDP growth is heading

I am still in Provo Utah and even though I have had a busy time I have watch a bit of Bloomberg TV and CNBC over the last couple of days (to fight my jet lag). I have noticed some very puzzling comments from commentators. There have been one special theme and that has come up again and again over the last couple of days among the commentators on US financial TV and that is that “yeah, monetary easing might be positive for the markets, but it is not have any impact on the real economy”. This is a story about disconnect between the economy and the markets.

I find that perception very odd, but it seems like a lot of commentators simply are not mentally able to accept that monetary policy is highly effective. The story goes that when the Federal Reserve and the ECB moves towards monetary easing then it might do the markets good, but “real people” will not be helped. I find it unbelievable that well-educated economists would make such claims.

Markets are forward-looking and market pricing is the best tool we have for forecasting the future. When stock prices are rising, bond yields are rising, the dollar is weakening and commodity prices are going up then it is a very good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier and easier monetary conditions mean higher nominal GDP growth (remember MV=NGP!) and with sticky prices and excess capacity that most likely also mean higher real GDP growth. That has always been that case and that is also the case now. There is no disconnect between the markets and the economy, but there is a disconnect between what many commentators would like to see (that monetary policy is not working) and the reality.

To try to illustrate the connection between the markets and NGDP I have constructed a very simple index to track market expectations of future NGDP. I have only used two market indicators – a dollar index and the S&P500. I am constructed an index based on these two indicators – I have looked year-year percentage changes in both indices. I have standardized the indices and deducted them from each other – remember higher S&P500 means higher NGDP, but a stronger dollar (a higher USD index) means lower NGDP. I call this index the NGDP Market Indicator. The indicator has been standardized so it has the same average and standard deviation as NGDP growth since 1990.

As the graph below shows this simple indicator for future NGDP growth has done a fairly good job in forecasting NGDP since 1990. (You can see the background data for the indicator here).

During the 1990s the indicator indicates a fairly stable growth rate of NGDP and that is in fact what we had. In 1999 the indicator started to send a pretty clear signal that NGDP growth was going to slow – and that is exactly what we got. The indicator also clearly captures the shock in 2008 and the recovery in 2009-10.

It is obvious that this indicator is not perfect, but the indicator nonetheless clearly illustrates that there in general is no disconnect between the markets and the economy – when stock prices are rising and the dollar is weakening at the same time then it would normally be indicating that NGDP growth will be accelerating in the coming quarters. Having that in mind it is of course worrying that the indicator in the last couple of months has been indicating a relative sharp slowdown in NGDP growth, which of course provides some justification for the Fed’s recent action.

I must stress that I have constructed the NGDP market indicator for illustrative purposes, but I am also convinced that if commodity prices and bond yields and maybe market inflation expectations were included in the indicator and the weighing of the different sub-indicators was based on proper econometric methods (rather than a simple unweighted index) then it would be possible to construct an indicator that would be able to forecast NGDP growth 1-4 quarters ahead very well.

So again – there is no disconnect between the markets and the economy. Rather market prices are very good indicators of monetary policy “easiness” and therefore of future NGDP. In fact there is probably no better indicator for the monetary policy stance than market prices and the Federal Reserve and other central banks should utilize market prices much more in assessing the impact of monetary policy on the economy than it presently the case. An obvious possibility is also to use a future NGDP to guide monetary policy as suggested by Scott Sumner.

Related posts:

Understanding financial markets with MV=PY – a look at the bond market
Don’t forget the ”Market” in Market Monetarism
Central banks should set up prediction markets
Market Monetarist Methodology – Markets rather than econometric testing
Brad, the market will tell you when monetary policy is easy
Keleher’s Market Monetarism

Woodford on NGDP targeting and Friedman

Michael Woodford’s Jackson Hole paper is a goldmine. I haven’t read all of it, but I just want to share this quote:

“Essentially, the nominal GDP target path represents a compromise between the aspiration to choose a target that would achieve an ideal equilibrium if correctly understood and the need to pick a target that can be widely understood and can be implemented in a way that allows for verification of the central bank’s pursuit of its alleged target, in the spirit of Milton Friedman’s celebrated proposal of a constant growth rate for a monetary aggregate. Indeed, it can be viewed as a modern version of Friedman’s “k-percent rule” proposal, in which the variable that Friedman actually cared about stabilizing (the growth rate of nominal income) replaces the monetary aggregate that he proposed as a better proximate target, on the ground that the Fed had much more direct control over the money supply. On the one hand, the Fed’s ability to directly control broad monetary aggregates (the ones more directly related to nominal income in the way that Friedman assumed) can no longer be taken for granted, under current conditions; and on the other hand, modern methods of forecast targeting make a commitment to the pursuit of a target defined in terms of variables that are not under the short-run control of the central bank more credible. Under these circumstances, a case can be made that a nominal GDP target path would remain true to Friedman’s fundamental concerns.”

Exactly! NGDP targeting is exactly in the spirit of Friedman.

And Woodford goes on to quote one of the founding fathers of Market Monetarism:

“See, for example, (David) Beckworth (2011) for an argument to this effect. Beckworth notes that Friedman (2003) praised the accuracy of “the Fed’s thermostat,” for having reduced M2 growth during the period of increasing “velocity” in 1988-1997, and then increased M2 growth by several percent- age points during a period of decreasing velocity in 1997-2003. One might conclude that Friedman valued successful stabilization of nominal GDP growth more than strict fidelity to a “k-percent rule.”

See David’s take on Woodford here and here is what Scott Sumner has to say.

Related posts:
Friedman provided a theory for NGDP targeting
Michael Woodford endorses NGDP level targeting

Michael Woodford endorses NGDP level targeting

Here is from Bloomberg:

Central bankers should adopt a clear policy goal, such as the path for nominal gross domestic product, to make remaining easing options more effective under the limits of near-zero interest rates, according to Michael Woodford, a professor of political economy at Columbia University.

Such criteria would increase the impact of efforts to reset public expectations for interest rate policy, such as asset-purchases, Woodford said. Federal Reserve policy makers have kept the benchmark rate near zero since December 2008 and this month reiterated a plan to keep borrowing costs at record lows through at least late 2014.

“A more useful form of forward guidance, I believe, would be one that emphasizes the target criterion that will be used to determine when it is appropriate to raise the federal funds rate target above its current level, rather than estimates of the ‘lift-off’ date,” Woodford said in a paper presented today at the Fed’s annual symposium in Jackson HoleWyoming.

A pledge to restore nominal GDP “to the trend path it had been on up until the fall of 2008” would “make it clear that policy will have to remain looser in the near term” than indicated by the Taylor rule, he said. It would also “provide assurance that the unusually stimulative current policy stance does not imply any intention to tolerate continuing inflation above the Fed’s declared long-run inflation target.”

“But if a central bank’s intention in announcing such purchases is to send such a signal, the signal would seem more likely to have the desired effect if accompanied by explicit forward guidance, rather than regarded as a substitute for it,” Woodford said.

“A more logical policy would rely on a combination of commitment to a clear target criterion to guide future decisions about interest-rate policy with immediate policy actions that should stimulate spending immediately without relying too much on expectational channels,” Woodford said.

The Fed has carried out two rounds of bond purchases known as quantitative easing to reduce borrowing costs. In the first round starting in 2008, the Fed bought $1.25 trillion of mortgage-backed securities, $175 billion of federal agency debt and $300 billion of Treasuries. In the second round, announced in November 2010, the Fed bought $600 billion of Treasuries.

Policies that target specific credit areas, such as buying mortgage-backed securities, or the Bank of England’s Funding for Lending Scheme, may be more effective at boosting spending, though they are “more properly” viewed as fiscal as opposed to monetary stimulus, he said.

Combining central bankers’ nominal GDP target would also “increase the bang for the buck from fiscal stimulus” while limiting inflation concerns, Woodford said. “The most obvious recipe for success is one that requires coordination between the monetary and the fiscal authorities.”

Lets just say I agree with the policy recommendation – even though I certainly do not think US monetary policy is accommodative just because the fed funds rate is low.

Imagine if the ECB would host a conference where somebody would recommend NGDP level targeting…

Here is Woodford’s paper Methods of Policy Accommodation at the Interest-Rate Lower Bound

Update: My fellow Market Monetarists David Beckworth (who is quoted in Woodford’s paper) and Marcus Nunes also comment on Woodford.

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

Most of the blogging Market Monetarists have their roots in a strong free market tradition and nearly all of us would probably describe ourselves as libertarians or classical liberal economists who believe that economic allocation is best left to market forces. Therefore most of us would also tend to agree with general free market positions regarding for example trade restrictions or minimum wages and generally consider government intervention in the economy as harmful.

I think that NGDP targeting is totally consistent with these general free market positions – in fact I believe that NGDP targeting is the monetary policy regime which best ensures well-functioning and undistorted free markets. I am here leaving aside the other obvious alternative, which is free banking, which my readers would know that I have considerable sympathy for.

However, while NGDP targeting to me is the true free market alternative this is certainly not the common view among free market oriented economists. In fact I find that most of the economists who I would normally agree with on other issues such as labour market policies or trade policy tend to oppose NGDP targeting. In fact most libertarian and conservative economists seem to think of NGDP targeting as some kind of quasi-keynesian position. Below I will argue why this perception of NGDP targeting is wrong and why libertarians and conservatives should embrace NGDP targeting as the true free market alternative.

Why is NGDP targeting the true free market alternative?

I see six key reasons why NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative:

1) NGDP targeting is ”neutral” – hence unlike under for example inflation targeting NGDPLT do not distort relative prices – monetary policy “ignores” supply shocks.
2) NGDP targeting will not distort the saving-investment decision – both George Selgin and David Eagle argue this very forcefully.
3) NGDP targeting ”emulates” the Free Banking allocative outcome.
4) Level targeting minimizes the amount of discretion and maximises the amount of accountability in the conduct of monetary policy. Central banks cannot get away with “forgetting” about past mistakes. Under NGDP level targeting there is no letting bygones-be-bygones.
5) A futures based NGDP targeting regime will effective remove all discretion in monetary policy.
6) NGDP targeting is likely to make the central bank “smaller” than under the present regime(s). As NGDP targeting is likely to mean that the markets will do a lot of the lifting in terms of implementing monetary policy the money base would likely need to be expanded much less in the event of a negative shock to money velocity than is the case under the present regimes in for example the US or the euro zone. Under NGDP targeting nobody would be calling for QE3 in the US at the moment – because it would not be necessary as the markets would have fixed the problem.

So why are so many libertarians and conservatives sceptical about NGDP targeting?

Common misunderstandings:

1) NGDP targeting is a form of “countercyclical Keynesian policy”. However, Market Monetarists generally see recessions as a monetary phenomenon, hence monetary policy is not supposed to be countercyclical – it is supposed to be “neutral” and avoid “generating” recessions. NGDP level targeting ensures that.
2) Often the GDP in NGDP is perceived to be real GDP. However, NGDP targeting does not target RGDP. NGDP targeting is likely to stabilise RGDP as monetary shocks are minimized, but unlike for example inflation targeting the central bank will NOT react to supply shocks and as such NGDP targeting means significantly less “interference” with the natural order of things than inflation targeting.
3) NGDP targeting is discretionary. On the contrary NGDP targeting is extremely ruled based, however, this perception is probably a result of market monetarists call for easier monetary policy in the present situation in the US and the euro zone.
4) Inflation will be higher under NGDP targeting. This is obviously wrong. Over the long-run the central bank can choose whatever inflation rate it wants. If the central bank wants 2% inflation as long-term target then it will choose an NGDP growth path, which is compatible which this. If the long-term growth rate of real GDP is 2% then the central bank should target 4% NGDP growth path. This will ensure 2% inflation in the long run.

Another issue that might be distorting the discussion of NGDP targeting is the perception of the reasons for the Great Recession. Even many libertarian and conservative economists think that the present crisis is a result of some kind of “market disorder” – either due to the “natural instability” of markets (“animal spirits”) or due to excessively easy monetary policy in the years prior to the crisis. The proponents of these positions tend to think that NGDP targeting (which would mean monetary easing in the present situation) is some kind of a “bail out” of investors who have taken excessive risks.

Obviously this is not the case. In fact NGDP targeting would mean that central bank would get out of the business of messing around with credit allocation and NGDP targeting would lead to a strict separation of money and banking. Under NGDP targeting the central bank would only provide liquidity to “the market” against proper collateral and the central bank would not be in the business of saving banks (or governments). There is a strict no-bail out clause in NGDP targeting. However, NGDP targeting would significantly increase macroeconomic stability and as such sharply reduce the risk of banking crisis and sovereign debt crisis. As a result the political pressure for “bail outs” would be equally reduced. Similarly the increased macroeconomic stability will also reduce the perceived “need” for other interventionist measures such as tariffs and capital control. This of course follows the same logic as Milton Friedman’s argument against fixed exchange rates.

NGDP level targeting as a privatization strategy

As I argue above there are clear similarities between the allocative outcome under Free Banking – hence a fully privatized money supply – and NGDP targeting. In fact I believe that NGDP level targeting might very well be seen as part of a privatization strategy. (I have argued that before – see here)

Hence, a futures based NGDP targeting regime would basically replace the central bank with a computer in the sense that there would be no discretionary decisions at all in the conduct of monetary policy. In that sense the futures based NGDP targeting regime would be similar to a currency board, but instead of “pegging” monetary policy to a foreign currency monetary policy would be “pegged” to the market expectation of future nominal GDP. This would seriously limit the discretionary powers of central banks and a truly futures based NGDP targeting regime in my view would only be one small step away from Free Banking. This is also why I do not see any conflict between advocating NGDP level targeting and Free Banking. This of course is something, which is fully recognised by Free Banking proponents such as George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz.

PS this is no the first time I try to convince libertarians and conservatives that NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative. See my first attempt here.


Related posts:

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

Update (July 23 2012): Scott Sumner once again tries to convince “conservatives” that monetary easing is the “right” position. I agree, but I predict that Scott will fail once again because he argue in terms of “stimulus” rather than in terms of rules.

The Fed can hit any NGDP target

I hate getting into debates where different bloggers go back and forth forever and never reach any conclusion. I am not blogging to get into debates, however, I must admit that Steven Williamson’s recent posts on NGDP level targeting have provoked me quite a bit.

In his first post Williamson makes a number of claims, which I find highly flawed. However, Scott Sumner has already at length addressed most of these issues in a reply to Williamson so I don’t want to get into that (and as you guessed I am fully in agreement with Scott). However, Williamson’s reply to Scott is not less flawed than his initial post. Again I don’t want to go through the whole thing. However, one statement that Williamson makes I think is a very common mistake and I therefore think a comment is in order. Here is Williamson:

“The key problem under the current circumstances is that you can’t just announce an arbitrary NGDP target and hit it with wishful thinking. The Fed needs some tools, and in spite of what Ben Bernanke says, it doesn’t have them.”

This is a very odd comment coming from somebody who calls himself a (New) Monetarist. It is at the core of monetarism in the sense of Friedman, Brunner, Meltzer, Cagan, Schwartz, Warburton and Yeager etc. that nominal GDP is determined by the central bank and no monetarist has ever acknowledged that there is a liquidity trap. Williamson claims that he does not agree with everything Friedman said, but I wonder what Friedman said he agrees with. If you don’t believe that NGDP is determined by the central bank then it makes absolutely no sense to call yourself a monetarist.

Furthermore, if you don’t think that the Fed can hit an NGDP target how could you think it could hit an inflation target? Both changes in NGDP and in prices are monetary phenomena.

Anyway, let’s get back to the question whether the central bank can hit an NGDP target and what instruments could be used to hit that target.

The simplest way to do it is actually to use the exchange rate channel. Let’s assume that the Federal Reserve wants to increase the US NGDP level by 15% and that it wants to do it by the end of 2013.

Scott has suggested using NGDP futures to hit the NGDP target, but let’s assume that is too complicated to understand for the critics and the Fed. Instead the Fed will survey professional forecasters about their expectations for the level of NGDP by the end of 2013. The Fed will then announce that as long as the “consensus” forecast for NGDP is below the target the Fed will step up monetary easing. The Fed will do the survey once a month.

Let’s start out with the first announcement under this new regime. Initially the forecasters are skeptical and forecast NGDP to be 12% below target. As a consequence the Fed announces a Swiss style exchange target. It simply announces that it will intervene in the FX market buying unlimited amounts of foreign currency until the US dollar has weakened 20% in nominal effective terms (and yes, the Fed has the instruments to do that – it has the printing press to print dollars). I am pretty sure that Williamson would agree that that directly would increase US NGDP (if not I would love to see his model…).

The following month the forecasters will likely have moved their forecasts for NGDP closer to the target level. But we might still have too low a level of forecasted NGDP. Therefore, the Fed will the following month announce a further “devaluation” by lets say 5%. The process will continue until the forecasted level for NGDP equals the target level. If the consensus forecast starts to overshoot the target the Fed will simply announce that it will reverse the process and revalue the dollar.

Therefore there is certainly no reason to argue 1) that the Fed can not hit any NGDP target 2) that the Fed does not have an instrument. The exchange rate channel can easily do the job. Furthermore, if the Fed announces this policy then it is very likely that the market will be doing most of the lifting. The dollar would automatically appreciate and depreciate until the market expectations are equal to the NGDP target.

If you have heard all this before then it is because this a variation of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan and Lars E. O. Svensson’s foolproof way out of a liquidity trap. And yes, I have previously suggested this for small open economies, but the Fed could easily use the same method to hit a given NGDP target.

Update: I should note that the example above is exactly that – an example. I use the example to illustrate that a central bank can always increase NGDP and that the exchange rate channel is an effective tool to achieve this goal. However, the numbers mentioned in my post are purely “fictional” and again it example rather than a policy recommendation. That said, I am pretty that if the Fed did exactly as what I suggest above the US would very fast bee out of this crisis. The same goes for the ECB.

Update II: Marcus Nunes and Bill Woolsey also comment on Williamson. Nick Rowe comments on David Adolfatto’s anti-NGDP targeting post(s).

Guest post: Why “Integral” is wrong about Price Level Targeting (by J. Pedersen)

I have always said that my blog should be open to debate and I am happy to have guest posts from clever and inlighted economists (and non-economists) about monetary matters. I am therefore delighted that my good friend and colleague Jens Pedersen (I used to be his boss…) has offered to write a reply to “Integral’s” post on price level targeting versus NGDP level targeting. Jens who recently graduated from University of Copenhagen. His master thesis was about Price Level Targeting.

Jens, take it away…

Lars Christensen

Guest post: Why “Integral” is wrong about Price Level Targeting

by Jens Pedersen

The purpose of this comment is two-fold. First, I argue that ”Integral” in his guest post ”Measuring the stance of monetary policy through NGDP and prices” is wrong when he concludes that the Federal Reserve has done a fine job in achieving price level path stability and by this measure does maintain a tight stance on monetary policy. Second, I present a way of evaluating the Fed’s monetary policy stance based on the theory of optimal monetary policy.

“Integral” assumes that the Federal Reserve has targeted an implicit linear path for the price level since the beginning of the Great Moderation. Following Pedersen (2011) using the deviation in the price level from a linear trend (or the deviation in nominal GDP) to evaluate the stance of monetary policy needs to take into account the potential breaks and shifts in the trend following changes in the monetary policy regime. Changes in the monetary policy committee, changes in the mandate, targets etc. may lead to a shift or break in the targeted trend. Hence, the current implicit targeted trend for the price level (or nominal GDP) should correctly be estimated from February 2006 to take into account the change in president of the FOMC, or alternatively take account of this possible shift or break.

Changing the estimation period changes the conclusions of “Integral’s” analysis. Below, I illustrate the deviation in the log core PCE index from the estimated linear trend over the period 2006:2-2006:12. As the figure show Fed has significantly undershoot its implicit price level target and has not achieved price level path stability during the Great Recession. Currently, the price level gap is around 3% and increasing. Hence, looking at the deviation in the price level from the implicit price level trend does indeed suggest that monetary policy should be eased.

Following, Clarida et. al. (1999), Woodford (2003) and Vestin (2006) optimal monetary policy is a dual mandate which requires the central bank to be concerned with the deviation in output from its efficient level and the deviation in the price level from its targeted level. The first-best way of evaluating Fed’s monetary policy stance should be relative to the optimal solution to monetary policy.

However, this method requires a clear reference to the output gap. Common practice has been to calculate the output gap as the deviation in real output from its HP-filtered trend. This practice is by all means a poor consequence of the RBC view of economic fluctuations. Theoretically it fails to take account of the short run fluctuations in the efficient level of output. Empirically it does a poor job at estimating the potential output near the end points of the sample.

Fortunately, Jordi Galí in Galí (2011) shows how to circumvent these problems and derive a theoretical consistent output gap defined as the deviation in real output from its efficient counterpart. The efficient level of output corresponds to the first-best allocation in the economy, i.e. the output achieved when there are no nominal rigidities or imperfections present. Galí further shows how this output gap can be derived using only the observed variables of the unemployment rate and the labour income share.

The chart below depicts the efficiency gap in the US economy. Note, that this definition does not allow positive values. It is clear from the figure that at present there is significant economic slack in the US economy of historic dimension. The US output gap is currently almost 6.5% and undershoots its natural historical mean by more than 1.5%-points.

Hence, the present price level gap and output gap reveal that the Federal Reserve has not conducted optimal monetary policy during the Great Recession. Furthermore, the analysis suggest that Fed can easily increase inflation expectations by committing to closing the price level gap. This should give the desired boost to demand and spending and further close the output gap.


Clarida, et al. (1999), “The Science of Monetary Policy: A New Keynesian Perspective”

Galí (2011), “Unemployment Fluctuations and Stabilization Policies: A New Keynesian Perspective”

Pedersen (2011), “Price Level Targeting: Optimal Anchoring of Expectations in a New Keynesian Model”

Vestin (2006), “Price Level Targeting versus Inflation Targeting

Woodford (2003), “Interest and Prices”

Vince Cable gives me hope

It is very easy to get frustrated about the discussion of monetary policy in today’s world. However, this morning we got something to cheer about as Vince Cable British Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills gave a speech on the UK recovery in the 1930s and the parallels to today’s crisis at the think tank Centre Forum. The entire speech is very uplifting.

Here is Cable:

“you learn far more about our recovery in the 1930s from looking at monetary conditions that you can from examining fiscal policy.”

Yes, yes, yes! We should stop wrangling about fiscal policy. What brought Britain out of the Great Depression was the decision to give up the gold standard in 1931 and what will bring the UK economy out of this crisis is monetary easing. Fiscal policy in that regard is basically irrelevant. Luckily Vince Cable seems to comprehend that – as do Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborn. Bank of England Governor Mervyn King might also (finally) get it.  

Back to Cable’s speech:

“… It is worth recalling just how brutal were the first dozen years after the First World War.  Britain attempted to return to its pre War gold level, which meant chronic deflation to bring us back with world prices (what Southern Europe is attempting today).  As a result, the price index which had risen from 100 in 1914 to 250 in 1920, fell to 180 in a couple of years and continued falling all the way below 150 in 1930.”

Yes again! The British economy was struggling to get out of the crisis because of a misguided commitment to the gold standard. Once the gold standard was given up it was recovery time. And luckily Vince Cable fully well knows that monetary easing also would do the trick today.

And he knows that fiscal easing is not the important thing – monetary policy will do the job:

“without a noticeable relaxation in fiscal policy, the economy surged into strong growth which was becoming apparent mid 1933. As I said earlier the obvious explanation was a sharp loosening of monetary policy”

Can it get much more Market Monetarist than that? Yes in fact it can:

“What tools does the Government have? The first is continued use of monetary policy, and stronger communication of the policy aim it is meant to achieve – robust recovery in money spending and GDP. “

Cable calls for an NGDP targeting regime!

And even better Cable seems to want a Market Monetarist as the next Bank of England Governor – or at least somebody in favour of NGDP targeting:

“I am sure that all the candidates to take over from Mervyn King are thinking very hard about how best to do this [a robust recovery in money spending and GDP].”

In 1931 the British government showed the way. I hope that today’s British government will show the same kind of resolve. Vince Cable gives me a lot of hope to be optimistic about that.

Thank you Vince, you’ve made my day!

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