Oil prices, inflation and the FT’s good advice for central bankers

This is from the Financial Times’ FT View:

Pity the analyst forecasting today’s global economy. For every signal warning of stagnation there is another glowing green for go. But through this blur of clashing indicators it is possible to discern some consistent themes.

The clearest is weak inflation. The main cause is oversupply in the oil market where prices have fallen by one-third since the summer. With other commodities from cotton and hogs to wheat and soybeans similarly cheap, countries that rely on imported food and fuel have had a welcome boost.

American consumers in particular benefit from cheap fuel, which helps to explain growing momentum in the US economy. Strong jobs numbers on Friday confirmed a growing recovery. These bullish spirits are mirrored on Wall Street where the stock market has rebounded by 10 per cent since the turmoil of October.

But any student of the Great Depression would caution against seeing disinflationary forces in a purely positive light. In Japan and Europe, the persistent downwards trend in inflation is also a reflection of weak incomes. If left unchecked, this threatens to entrench a low-spending, deflationary mindset. Outside of a big slowdown, wage growth in much of the developed world has never been weaker. Even the most ambitious monetary policy can be undermined if pay packets are not growing. Instead of being spent, cash accumulates on the balance sheets of businesses unwilling to invest…

…Monetary policy provides the best key to understanding the variegated global picture. The central banks of the US, UK and Japan all adopted easier policies and were rewarded with an upturn. Given weak wage growth and a lack of fiscal support, such stimulus ought to continue.

Europe is an unhappy exception. Despite German misgivings, low interest rates are no evidence that money is too loose: nominal GDP growth stutters along at less than 3 per cent, a clear sign that the stance is much too tight. In recent years the ECB twice made the mistake of raising rates too soon, and thereby punished Europe with a deeper recession and a worse fiscal crisis. If its president Mario Draghi cannot ease policy further, the consequences will be just as serious.

The welcome boost provided by cheaper oil may help the global economy accelerate over the next year. Even Europe could participate, if only its policy makers would stop confusing the brake with the accelerator.

Do I need to say I agree with 99% of this? Yes, lower oil prices is mostly good news to the extent it reflects a positive supply shock in the oil market and yes if that was the only reason we are seeing deflation spreading then we should not worry.

However, take a look at any indicator of monetary condtions in the euro zone – the collapse in the money base since 2012, meager M3 growth, no NGDP growth, higher real interest rates, a stronger euro (since 2012) and sharply lower inflation expectations – and you should soon realise that the real deflation story in the euro zone is excessively tight monetary policy and the ECB need to do something about that whether oil trades at 40 or 140 dollars/barrel.

PS I don’t think the same story goes for the US. The recent drop in US inflation does not on its own warrant monetary easing. The Fed just needs to keep focused on expected NGDP growth and there is no signs of NGDP growth slowing in the US so I don’t think monetary policy is called for in the US.

PPS For some countries – oil-exporters with pegged exchange rates – lower oil prices is in fact monetary tightening – see here.


Oil-exporters need to rethink their monetary policy regimes

I started writing this post on Monday, but I have had an insanely busy week – mostly because of the continued sharp drop in oil prices and the impact of that on particularly the Russian rouble. But now I will try to finalize the post – it is after on a directly related topic to what I have focused on all week – in fact for most of 2014.

Oil prices have continued the sharp drop and this is leading to serious challenges for monetary policy in oil-exporting countries. Just the latest examples – The Russian central bank has been forced to abandon the managed float of the rouble and effectively the rouble is now (mostly) floating freely and in Nigeria the central bank the central bank has been forced to allow a major devaluation of the country’s currency the naira. In Brazil the central bank is – foolishly – fighting the sell-off in the real by hiking interest rates.

While lower oil prices is a positive supply shock for oil importing countries and as such should be ignored by monetary policy makers the story is very different for oil-exporters such as Norway, Russia, Angola or the Golf States. Here the drop in oil prices is a negative demand shock.

In a country like Norway, which has a floating exchange rate the shock is mostly visible in the exchange rate – at least to the extent Norges Bank allows the Norwegian krone to weaken. This of course is the right policy to pursue for oil-exporters.

However, many oil-exporting countries today have pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates. This means that a drop in oil prices automatically becomes a monetary tightening. This is for example the case for the Golf States, Venezuela and Angola. In this countries what I have called the petro-monetary transmission mechanism comes into play.

An illustration of the petro-monetary transmission mechanism

When oil prices drop the currency inflows into oil-exporting countries drop – at the moment a lot – and this puts downward pressure on the commodity-currencies. In a country like Norway with a floating exchange rate this does not have a direct monetary consequence (that is not entirely correct if the central bank follows has a inflation target rather than a NGDP target – see here)

However, in a country like Saudi Arabia or Angola – countries with pegged exchange rates – the central bank will effectively will have tighten monetary policy to curb the depreciation pressures on the currency. Hence, lower oil prices will automatically lead to a contraction in the money base in Angola or Saudi Arabia. This in turn will cause a drop in the broad money supply and therefore in nominal spending in the economy, which likely will cause a recession and deflationary pressures.

The authorities can offset this monetary shock with fiscal easing – remember the Sumner critique does not hold in a fixed exchange rate regime – but many oil-exporters do not have proper fiscal buffers to use such policy effectively.

The Export-Price-Norm – good alternative to fiscal policy

Instead I have often – inspired by Jeffrey Frankel – suggested that the commodity exporters should peg their currencies to the price of the commodity the export or to a basket of a foreign currency and the export price. This is what I have termed the Export-Price-Norm (EPN).

For commodity exporters commodity exports is a sizable part of aggregate demand (nominal spending) and therefore one can think of a policy to stabilize export prices via an Export-Price-Norm as a policy to stabilize nominal spending growth in the economy. The graph – which I have often used – below illustrates that.

The graph shows the nominal GDP growth in Russia and the yearly growth rate of oil prices measured in roubles.

There is clearly a fairly high correlation between the two and oil prices measured in roubles leads NGDP growth. Hence, it is therefore reasonable in my view to argue that the Russian central bank could have stabilized NGDP growth by conducting monetary policy in such a way as to stabilize the growth oil prices in roubles.

That would effectively mean that the rouble should weaken when oil prices drop and appreciate when oil prices increase. This is of course exactly what would happen in proper floating exchange rate regime (with NGDP targeting), but it is also what would happen under an Export-Price-Norm.

Hence, obviously the combination of NGDP target and a floating exchange rate regime would do it for commodity exporters. However, an Export-Price-Norm could do the same thing AND it would likely be simpler to implement for a typical Emerging Markets commodity exporter where macroeconomic data often is of a low quality and institutions a weak.

So yes, I certainly think a country like Saudi Arabia could – and should – float its currency and introduce NGDP targeting and thereby significantly increase macroeconomic stability. However, for countries like Angola, Nigeria or Venezueala I believe an EPN regime would be more likely to ensure a good macroeconomic outcome than a free float (with messy monetary policies).

A key reason is that it is not necessarily given that the central bank would respect the rules-of-the-game under a float and it might find it tempting to fool around with FX intervention from time to time. Contrary to this an Export-Price-Norm would remove nearly all discretion in monetary policy. In fact one could imagine a currency board set-up combined with EPN. Under such a regime there would be no monetary discretion at all.

The monetary regime reduces risks, but will not remove all costs of lower commodity prices

Concluding, I strongly believe that an Export-Price-Norm can do a lot to stabilise nominal spending growth – and therefore also to a large extent real GDP growth – but that does not mean that there is no cost to the commodity exporting country when commodity prices drop.

Hence, a EPN set-up would do a lot to stabilize aggregate demand and the economy in general, but it would not change the fact that a drop in oil prices makes oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Angola less wealthy. That is the supply side effect of lower oil prices for oil producing countries. Obviously we should expect that to lower consumption – both public and private – as a drop in oil prices effectively is a drop in the what Milton Friedman termed the permanent income. Under a EPN set-up this will happen through an increase inflation due to higher import prices and hence lower real income and lower real consumption.

There is no way to get around this for oil exporters, but at least they can avoid excessive monetary tightening by either allowing currency to float (depreciate) free or by pegging the currency to the export price.

Who will try it out first? Kuwait? Angola or Venezuela? I don’t know, but as oil prices continue to plummet the pressure on governments and central banks in oil exporting countries is rising and for many countries this will necessitate a rethinking of the monetary policy regime to avoid unwarranted monetary tightening.

PS I should really mention a major weakness with EPN. Under an EPN regime monetary conditions will react “correctly” to shocks to the export prices and for countries like Russia or Anglo “normally” this is 90% of all shocks. However, imagine that we see a currency outflow for other reasons – for as in the case of Russia this year (political uncertainty/geopolitics) – then monetary conditions would be tightened automatically in an EPN set-up. This would be unfortunate. That, however, I think would be a fairly small cost compared to the stability EPN otherwise would be expected to oil exporters like Angola or Russia.

PPS I overall think that 80-90% of the drop in the rouble this year is driven by oil prices, while geopolitics only explains 10-20% of the drop in the rouble. See here.

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