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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.

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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.

Tighter monetary conditions – not lower oil prices – are pushing down inflation expectations

Oil prices are tumbling and so are inflation expectations so it is only natural to conclude that the drop in inflation expectations is caused by a positive supply shock – lower oil prices. However, that is not necessarily the case. In fact I believe it is wrong.

Let me explain. If for example 2-year/2-year euro zone inflation expectations drop now because of lower oil prices then it cannot be because of lower oil prices now, but rather because of expectations for lower oil prices in the future.

2y2y BEI euro zone

But the market is not expecting lower oil prices (or lower commodity prices in general) in the future. In fact the oil futures market expects oil prices to rise going forward.

Just take a look at the so-called 1-year forward premium for brent oil. This is the expected increase in oil prices over the next year as priced by the forward market.

brent 1-year foreard

Oil prices have now dropped so much that market participants now actually expect rising oil prices over the going year.

Hence, we cannot justify lower inflation expectations by pointing to expectations for lower oil prices – because the market actual expects higher oil prices – more than 2.5% higher oil prices over the coming year.

So it is not primarily a positive supply shock we are seeing playing out right now. Rather it is primarily a negative demand shock – tighter monetary conditions.

Who is tightening? Well, everybody -The Fed has signalled rate hikes next year, the ECB is continuing to failing to deliver on QE, the BoJ is allowing the strengthening of the yen to continue and the PBoC is allowing nominal demand growth to continue to slow.

As a result the world is once again becoming increasingly deflationary and that might also be the real reason why we are seeing lower commodity prices right now.

Furthermore, if we were indeed primarily seeing a positive supply shock – rather than tighter global monetary conditions – then global stock prices would have been up and not down.

I can understand the confusion. It is hard to differentiate between supply and demand shocks, but we should never reason from a price change and Scott Sumner is therefore totally correct when he is saying that we need a NGDP futures market as such a market would give us a direct and very good indicator of whether monetary/demand conditions are tightening or not.

Unfortunately we do not have such a market and there is therefore the risk that central banks around the world will claim that the drop in inflation expectations is driven by supply factors and that they therefore don’t have to react to it, while in fact global monetary conditions once again are tightening.

We have seen it over and over again in the past six years – monetary policy failure happens when central bankers fail to differentiate properly between supply and demand shocks. Hopefully this time they will realized the mistake before things get too bad.

PS I am not arguing that the drop in actual inflation right now is not caused by lower oil prices. I am claiming that lower inflation expectations are not caused by an expectation of lower oil prices in the future.

PPS This post was greatly inspired by clever young colleague Jens Pedersen.

Causality, econometrics and beautiful Saint Pete

I am going to Russia next week. It will be good to be back in wonderful Saint Petersburg. In connection with my trip I have been working on some econometric models for Russia. It is not exactly work that I enjoy and I am deeply skeptical about how much we can learn from econometric studies. That said, econometrics can be useful when doing practical economics – such as trying to forecast Russian growth and inflation.

So I have been working on this model for the Russian economy. The main purpose of the model is to learn about what I would would call the petro-monetary transmission mechanism in the Russian economy. It is my thesis that the primary channel for how oil prices are impacting the Russian economy is through the monetary transmission mechanism rather than through net exports.

Here is my theory in short: The Russian central bank (CBR) dislikes – or at least used to dislike – a freely floating exchange rate. Therefore the CBR will intervene to keep the ruble stable. These days the CBR manages the ruble within a band against a basket of the US dollar and the euro. Today the ruble is much more freely floating than it used to be, but nonetheless the ruble is still tightly managed and the ruble is certainly not a freely floating currency.

So why is that important for my econometric models for Russia? Well, it is important because it means quite a bit to the causality I assume in the model. Lets look at two examples. One where the ruble is completely pegged against another currency or a basket of currencies and another example where the ruble is freely floating and the central bank for example targets inflation or nominal GDP.

Pegged exchange rate: Causality runs from oil to money supply and NGDP 

If we are in a pegged exchange rate regime and the price of oil increases by lets say 10% then the ruble will tend to strengthen as currency inflows increase. However, with a fully pegged exchange rate the CBR will intervene to keep the ruble pegged. In other words the central bank will sell ruble and buy foreign currency and thereby increase the currency reserve and the money supply (to be totally correct the money base). Remembering that MV=PY so an increase in the money supply (M) will increase nominal GDP (PY) and this likely will also increase real GDP at least in the short run as prices and wages are sticky.

So in a pegged exchange rate set-up causality runs from higher oil prices to higher money supply growth and then on to nominal GDP and real GDP and then likely also higher inflation. Furthermore, if the economic agents are forward-looking they will realize this and as they know higher oil prices will mean higher inflation they will reduce money demand pushing up money velocity (V) which in itself will push up NGDP and RGDP (and prices).

Now lets look at the case where we assume a freely floating ruble.

Floating ruble: Oil prices and monetary policy will be disconnected

If we assume that the CBR introduce an inflation target and let the ruble float completely freely and convinces the markets that it don’t care about the level of the ruble then the causality in or model of the Russian economy changes completely.

Now imagine that oil prices rise by 10%. The ruble will tend to strengthen and as the CBR is not intervening in the FX market the ruble will in fact be allow to strengthen. What will that mean for nominal GDP? Nothing – the CBR is targeting inflation so if high oil prices is pushing up aggregate demand in the economy the central bank will counteract that by reducing the money supply so to keep aggregate demand “on track” and thereby ensuring that the central bank hits its inflation target. This is really a version of the Sumner Critique. While the Sumner Critique says that increased government spending will not increase aggregate demand under inflation targeting we are here dealing with a situation, where increased Russian net exports will not increase aggregate demand as the central bank will counteract it by tightening monetary policy. The export multiplier is zero under a floating exchange rate regime with inflation targeting.

Of course if the market participants realize this then the ruble should strengthen even more. Therefore, with a truly freely floating ruble the correlation between the exchange rate and the oil price will be very high. However, the correlation between the oil price and nominal GDP will be very low and nominal GDP will be fully determined by the central bank’s target. This is pretty much similar to Australian monetary policy. In Australia – another commodity exporter – the central bank allows the Aussie dollar to strengthen when commodity prices increases. In fact in Australia there is basically a one-to-one relationship between commodity prices and the Aussie dollar. A 1% increase in commodity prices more or less leads to a 1% strengthening of Aussie dollar – as if the currency was in fact pegged to the commodity price (what Jeff Frankel calls PEP).

Therefore with a truly floating exchange rate there would be little correlation between oil prices and nominal GDP and inflation, but a very strong correlation between oil prices and the currency. This of course is completely the opposite of the pegged exchange rate case, where there is a strong correlation between oil prices and therefore the money supply and nominal GDP.

Do I have to forget about econometrics? Not necessarily

So what do that mean for my little econometric exercise on the Russian economy? Well, basically it means that I have to be extremely careful when I interpret the econometric output. The models I have been playing around with I have estimated from 2000 and until today. I have done what is called Structural VAR analysis (with a lot of help from a clever colleague who knows econometrics much better than me). Some of the results we get are surely interesting, however, we got one major problem and that is that during the 12 years we are looking Russian monetary policy has changed significantly.

In the early part of the estimation period the Russian central bank basically maintained a quasi-pegged exchange for the ruble against the dollar. Later, however, the CBR started to manage the ruble against a basket of dollars and euros and at the same time the CBR would “adjust” the ruble rate to hit changing nominal targets – for example an inflation target. The CBR have had multiple and sometimes inconsistent targets during the past decade. Furthermore, the CBR has moved gradually in the direction of a more freely floating ruble by allowing for a wider “fluctuation band” around the euro-dollar basket.

So basically we would expect that causality in the Russian economy in 2000 would be pretty much as described in the pegged exchange rate case, while it today should be closer to the floating exchange rate case. That of course means that we should not expect the causality in our model to be stable causal structure. Econometricians hate that – to me it is just a fact of life or as Ludwig von Mises used to say “there are no constants in economics” (I am paraphrasing von Mises from my memory). This of course is also know as the Lucas Critique. Some would of course argue that we could take this into account when we do our econometric work, but regime changes do not necessarily happen from day to day. Often regime change is gradual, which makes it impossible to really to take into account in econometric studies.

And this is one of my problems with econometrics – or rather with how econometric studies often are conducted. They do not take into account regime change and therefore do not take into account expectations. As a result well-known correlations tend to breakdown. The best example is of course the disappearance of the Phillips curve relationship in the 1970s and 1980s. Another example is the breakdown of the causal relationship between money supply growth and inflation in 1990s.

So what do I do? Should I give up on my little econometric venture? No, I don’t think so. Econometrics can clearly be useful in determining the magnitude and importance of different shocks in the economy and surely some of our econometric results on the Russian economy seems to be pretty robust. For example over the estimation period it seems like a 10% increase in the oil prices have increased the M2 and nominal GDP by around 2%. That is nice to know and is useful information when you want to do forecasting on the Russian economy. But it would be completely naive to expect this relationship to be constant over time. Rather the Russian central bank is clearly moving in the direction of a more and more freely floating ruble so we should expect the correlation between oil prices one the one hand and M2 and NGDP on the other hand to decrease going forward.

Concluding, econometrics can be useful in doing “practical” economics like macroeconomic forecasting, but one should never forget to do the homework on the institutional structures of the economy and one should never ever forget about the importance of expectations. Economic reasoning is much more important than any statistical results.

Related posts:
Next stop Moscow
International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis
Fear-of-floating, misallocation and the law of comparative advantages
PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure
Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Higher oil prices and higher bond yields – good or bad news?

Recently (since December) we have seen US bond yields start to inch up and at the same time oil prices (and other commodity prices) have also inched up. This seem to be a great worry to some commentators – “Higher oil prices and higher bond yields will kill the fragile recovery” seem to be the credo of the day. This, however, reveals that many commentators – including some economists – have a hard time with basic demand-and-supply analysis. Said, in another way they seem to have a problem distinguishing between moving the supply curve and moving the demand curve along the supply curve.

Oil prices can increase for two reasons. First, oil prices can increase because there has been a drop in the supply of oil or expectations that that will happen in the future – for example due to war somewhere in the Middle East. Or second oil prices can increase because of increased global demand due to easier monetary conditions globally (an increase in global NGDP growth). The first effect is a move of the supply curve to the left. The second is move on the supply curve. This difference is extremely important when we talk about the impact on the global economy – first is bad news and the second is good news for the global economy.

What we need to know when we look at market action is to know why asset prices are moving and the best way to do that is to compare how different asset markets are moving.

As I have shown in my previous post higher long-term bond yields is an indication of higher future growth in nominal GDP. Therefore, if both oil prices and long term bond yields are inching upwards then it is probably a pretty good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier – and NGDP growth is expected to increase. To further confirm this is might be useful to look at equity prices – if global equity prices also are inching upward then I think one can safely say that that reflect a shift in the global AD curve to the right – hence global NGDP growth is expected to increase. This actually seem to be what have been happening since the ECB introduced the so-called 3-year LTRO in December.

On the other hand if oil prices continue to rise, but equity prices start to decline and bond yields inch down – then it is normally a pretty good indication that a negative supply shock just hit the global economy. That, however, does not seem to be the case right now.

I continue to find it odd that so many economists are not able to use the most useful tool in the the economist’s toolbox – the supply-and-demand diagram. It is really pretty simple. However, how often have we not heard that rising inflation will hurt the consumer and kill the recovery? This is really the same story. Inflation can increase because of higher nominal demand or because of lower supply. If demand is increasing – monetary conditions are becoming easier – then there really is no need to worry about the recovery. In fact we know that there is a close positive correlation between NGDP growth and RGDP growth in the short-run so any indication of higher NGDP growth in the present situation should really be expected to lead to higher RGDP growth.

So next time you hear somebody say that higher oil prices or higher bond yields might kill the recovery ask them to explain what they mean in a demand-and-supply diagram. If they move the supply curve to the left – then you need to ask them how they explain that global stock prices have been increasing as well…of course is stock prices indeed been falling then their analysis is of course correct…

PS needless to say we can of course have a situation where both the supply curve and the demand curve is moving at the same time. This often happens when central banks are unable to distinguishing between demand and supply shock. Hence, if inflation increase due to a negative supply shock as was the case in 2011 and then central banks react by tightening monetary conditions as the ECB did in 2011 then you get both the supply curve and the curve moving…(The ECB obviously made this policy mistake because somebody forgot to draw supply-and-demand diagrams…).

UPDATE: Our friend Jason Rave has a comment on a similar topic over at his blog Macro Matters. As me Jason is not worried about rising oil prices if they indeed do reflect higher global demand.

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