This is why we need an NGDP futures market

Until recently the global financial markets were on an one-way trip to recovery. Basically since the Federal Reserve in September implicitly announced the Bernanke-Evans rule investors have been betting on an US economic recovery – higher real and nominal GDP growth – and the Bank of Japan’s decisive actions to implement a 2% inflation target also have helped the sentiment. However, the picture has become a lot more confusing in recent weeks as turmoil has returned to the global financial markets.

The key problem is that we do not exactly know why there has been a sharp spike in market volatility. There is a number of competing theories. The most popular theory is that this is all Ben Bernanke’s fault as he has announced the “tapering” of quantitative easing – that according to the critiques has caused markets to price in tighter monetary conditions in the future and that is the reason why bond yields are rising while inflation expectations and stock markets are declining. A competing theory is that the real reason for this is not really Bernanke, but rather monetary tightening in China, which is forcing Chinese investors to liquidate investments – including in US Treasuries. I have a lot of sympathy for the later theory even though I think it is also right that Bernanke’s comments over the past months have been having an negative impact.

So why is it important what is the cause of these market moves? It’s it enough to note that all indications are that we globally are now seeing a contraction in aggregate demand and central banks should respond to that by easing monetary conditions? Yes and no. Yes because it is clear that monetary conditions are indeed getting tighter everywhere. However, no because that was not necessarily clear until last week.

Low inflation expectations is necessarily not a monetary easing

Interestingly enough it seems like everybody have become Market Monetarists recently in the sense that they think that it is the fed that is driving the markets via (bad) communication and the commentators are exactly looking at market indicators monetary conditions – for example market expectations for inflation.

And it is of course the sharp drop in inflation expectations, which is causing a lot of concern and I obviously agree that central banks should keep an very close eye on inflation expectations as an indicator for monetary conditions. HOWEVER, we should never forget that inflation expectations could drop either because of tighter monetary conditions or because of a positive supply shock.

Market Monetarists of course argue that central banks should not respond to supply shocks – positive or negative – and I would in fact argue that the drop in inflation expectations we have seen recently in the US (and other places) is to a large extent driven by a positive supply shock. That is good news for  real GDP growth. That is consistent with higher real bond yields and it not necessarily a problem (David Beckworth has been making that argument here). Hence, if the drop in inflation expectations had instead been primarily caused by tighter US monetary conditions then we should have expected to see the US stock markets plummet and the dollar should have strengthened.

That is of course what we have seen over the past week or so, but not in the month leading up to that. In that period the dollar was actually weakening moderately and the US stock market was holding up fairly well. That to me is an indication that the drop in inflation expectations have not only been about tighter US monetary condition.

Instead I think that we have seen a serious tightening of Chinese monetary condition and that has caused global commodity prices to drop. That is of course a negative demand shock in China, but it is a positive supply shock to the US economy. If that ONLY had been the case then it would be hard to the argument from a Market Monetarist perspective that the Federal Reserve should move to ease monetary conditions further. See my arguments from mid-May against monetary easing in responds to positive supply shocks here.

Avoid the confusion – set up an NGDP futures market

Sometimes it is pretty easy to “read” the markets to get an understanding of what is going on – it is for example pretty clear right now that Chinese monetary conditions are getting a lot tighter, but it is harder to say how much tighter US monetary conditions really have gotten over the past month or so and the bond market is certainly not a good indicator on its own (liquidity/flow effects vs expectational effects).

Hence, what should be the appropriate US monetary response? There is a significant difference between the appropriate respond to what is primarily a supply shock and what is primarily a demand shock. And it is of course not only me who is slightly confused about what is going on in the markets. Policy makers are likely to be at least as confused (likely a lot more…).

The best way to avoid any confusion is of course to set-up a market for exactly what the central bank is targeting. Hence, for an inflation targeting central bank there is of course inflation-linked bonds. However, that is not really a good guide for monetary policy if you want to avoid responding to supply shocks. Instead what we really need is NGDP-linked bonds. In the case of the US the US Treasury therefore should issue such bonds.

Had we had an US NGDP-linked bond now it would be very easy to see whether or not the markets where indeed pricing in tighter US monetary conditions and whether or not this should be a cause for concern. Furthermore, that would get us away from the constant discussion about whether higher bond yields is an indication of tighter or easier monetary conditions (it can in fact be both).

And finally if the there was an US NGDP-linked government bond then the fed could leave the time of “tapering” complete to the markets (See more on that here).

HT Cthorm

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PS Scott Sumner and Evan Soltas have similar discussions

China – my fear is a ”secondary deflation”

China has certainly moved to the very top of the agenda in the financial markets this week and a lot of what is playing out in the Chinese markets is eerily similar to what happened in the US and European markets in 2008.

As in 2008 there is a lot of focus on a bubble being deflated both among commentators and among central bankers. This in my view could lead to very unfortunate policy conclusions. I am particularly afraid that the People Bank of China’s fear of reflating the bubble will lead it to take too long to ease monetary policy – as clearly was the case in the US and Europe in 2008.

China – an “ideal” Hayekian boom-bust?

Market Monetarists are in general very sceptical about the Austrian story of the Great Recession and sceptical about a bubble explanation for the crisis. That, however, do not mean that Market Monetarists outright denies that there can be bubbles. In fact I certainly think that there was many examples of “bubbles” in 2008. However, the real reason for the bust was not overly easy monetary policy, but rather that monetary policy became insanely tight both in the US and the euro zone in 2008.

But how do that compare to the Chinese situation today? I have earlier argued that I don’t believe that easy monetary policy on its own it enough to create a major bubble. We need something more – and that is the existence of moral hazard or rather the implicit or explicit socialization of the cost of risk taking. One can certainty argue that Too-Big-To-Fail has been and still is a major problem in the Western world, but that is even more the case in China, where the banking sector remains under tight government control and where the banks are mostly government owned. Furthermore, the investment decisions in many industries remain under strict government control.

In that sense one can argue that China over the past 4-5 years have had the “ideal” environment – easing money and massive moral hazard problems – for creating a bubble. The result has most likely also been the creation of a bubble. I have no clue have big this bubble is, but I feel pretty certain that the Chinese government run banking system has created serious misallocation of capital and labour in the last 4-5 years. In that sense we have probably been through a Hayekian boom-bust in the Chinese economy.

Fear the secondary deflation rather than a new bubble

The Chinese authorities have been extremely focused on how to deflate what they consider to be a bubble and as a result Chinese monetary and credit policies have been tightened significantly since early 2010 when the PBoC the first time in the post-crisis recovery tightened reserve requirements.

Hence, since 2010 the PBoC has basically tried to “deflate the bubble” by tightening monetary conditions and as a result the Chinese economy has slowed dramatically.

The PBoC obviously has been right to tighten monetary policy, but I have for some time though that the PBoC was overdoing it (see for example my post on “dangerous bubble fears” from last year) and in that regard it is important to remind ourselves of Hayek’s advice on conduct of monetary policy in the “bust” phase of the business cycle.

When Hayek formulated his version of the Austrian business cycle theory in Prices and Production from 1931 he stressed that the monetary authority should let the bubble deflate with out any intervention. However, he later came to regret that he in the 1930s had not been more clear about the risk of what he called the “secondary deflation”. The secondary deflation is a “shock” that can follow the necessary correction of the “bubble” and send the economy into depression.

If we formulate this in Market Monetarist lingo we can say that the central bank should allow nominal GDP to fall back to the targeted level if there has been a “bubble” (NGDP has accelerated above the targeted level). This will ensure an orderly correction in the economy, but if the central bank allows NGDP to drop significantly below the “targeted” level then that will could trigger financial distress and banking crisis. This unfortunately seem to be exactly what we have seen some signs of in the Chinese markets lately.

The graph below shows two alternative hypothetical scenarios. The red line is what I call the “perfect landing” where the NGDP level is brought back on trend gradually and orderly, while the green line is the disorderly collapse in NGDP – the secondary deflation. The PBoC obviously should avoid the later scenario. This is what the ECB and fed failed to do in 2008.

boombust

Reasons why the PBoC might fail

I must admit that my fears of monetary policy failure in China have increased a lot this week, but luckily a secondary deflation can still be avoided if the PBoC moves swiftly to ease monetary conditions. However, I see a number of reasons why the PBoC might fail to do this.

First, there is no doubt that the PBoC is preoccupied with the risk of reflating the bubble rather than with avoiding secondary deflation. This I believe is the key reason why the PBoC has allowed things to get out of hand of the past weeks.

Second, significant monetary easing will necessitate that the PBoC should allow the renminbi to weaken. There might, however, be a number of reasons why the PBoC will be very reluctant to allow that. The primary reason would probably be that the Chinese do not want to be accused of engineering a “competitive deflation”. In that regard it should be noted that it would be catastrophic if the international community – particularly the Americans – opposed renminbi devaluation in a situation where the crisis escalates.

Third, the PBoC might feel uncomfortable with using certain instruments at its disposal for monetary easing. One thing is cut banks’ reserve requirements another thing is to conduct to do outright quantitative easing. We know from other central bank how there is a strong “mental” resentment to do QE.

I strongly hope that the PBoC will avoid remarking the ECB and fed’s mistakes of 2008, but the events of the past week certainly makes me nervous. Monetary policy failure can still be avoid it – how things develop from here on it up to the PBoC to decide.

Chinese monetary policy failure

“Fed tapering” seems to be repeated in every single story in the financial media over the last couple of days. However, I am afraid that the financial media – as often is the case – is overly US centric. We might want to look at another central bank than the Fed. We should instead pay some (a lot!) of attention to the People’s Bank of China (PBoC).

This is from CNBC:

“China’s central bank continued to test the resilience of local lenders to withstand a cash crunch on Thursday, as money market rates soared once again and short-term rates hit record highs.

The seven-day repo rate, which is seen as gauge of confidence to lend in the interbank market, rose to a record high above 10 percent. China’s overnight repo rate jumped to as high as 30 percent, analysts said.

Chinese money markets have suffered a severe liquidity strain in the past week, due to seasonal factors and a sharp slowdown in foreign exchange inflows, raising concerns about the financial risks facing the world’s second largest economy.

But to the surprise of many market participants, the central bank has held back from pumping cash into the market to ease the credit squeeze and analysts said a spike in the rates at which banks lend money to each other was also a concern. “

I can’t help thinking that we have seen this before. The fed and ECB actions in 2008 come to mind.

This is what I said in my post “Dangerous bubbles fears” in October last year:

“…the PBoC eased monetary policy aggressively in 2009 and that pulled the Chinese economy out of the crisis very fast, but since 2010 the PBoC obviously has become fearful that it had created a bubble – which is probably did. To me Chinese monetary policy probably became excessively easy in early 2010 so it was right to scale back on monetary easing, but money supply growth has slowed very dramatically in the last two years and monetary policy now seem to have become excessively tight.”

It seems to me that the PBoC is just continuing the excessive tightening and that seems to be the real culprit behind the stream of bad economic data we have got out of China recently. It looks like Chinese monetary policy failure.

So yes, Bernanke might have a communication problem, but at the moment it seems like the biggest monetary policy failure is Chinese rather than American.

PS it seems like the Bank of Japan is regaining some credibility – the Nikkei has been remarkably resilient in recent days.

Should PBoC be blamed for the collapse in gold prices?

The graph below shows the yearly growth rate of Chinese currency reserves and the yearly change in the gold price. If the Chinese central banks stops intervening in the currency markets to curb the strengthening the yuan then it effectively is monetary tightening – the FX reserve accumulation will slow as will money supply growth. 

goldFXRChina

 

I will leave it to my readers to speculate whether the People Bank’s of China should be blamed for the drop in gold prices. 

 

China is now targeting 9% NGDP growth

Did I get your attention? No China has not announced an NGDP level targeting regime, but did so in an indirect fashion. Let me explain why. The clever French economist Nicolas Goetzmann pointed me to this quote on ft.com:

“Speaking to several thousand current and retired Communist party officials in the Great Hall of the People, Mr Hu, who along with Premier Wen Jiabao has steered China for the past decade, also unveiled economic targets, saying the government would strive to double rural and urban incomes by the end of 2020.”

If you want to double the income level in China towards 2020 then that would mean 9% nominal GDP on average per year (Nicolas educated me on that as well). So de facto Mr. Hu just announced an 9% NGDP level target. And as Nicolas also convinced me – this is very good communication as it effectively is a level target rather than a growth target. If NGDP falls behind the target one year then growth will have to be higher the next year to hit the target in the 2020 income target.

Chinese officials seem to think that trend real GDP growth is likely to slow to around 7% in the coming decade – as the catch-up potential is reduced and China is facing demographic headwinds. That would effectively mean that China is now targeting a medium inflation rate around 2% (9%-7%).

As I have shown in an earlier post the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) more or less kept money supply (M1) growth around 15-16% for a little bit more than a decade. Obviously PBoC has to target a lower rate of money supply growth to hit a 9% NGDP target. Since 2000 M1 velocity has dropped around 1% so a M1 target consistent with a 9% NGDP target would likely mean 10% M1 growth. That is significantly faster than now, but also significantly lower than what used to be the case.

However, China is continuing to liberalize its financial markets and velocity is therefore likely to be less stable than it used to be the case, which will make money supply targeting much more challenging. Therefore the PBoC should obviously start to move towards NGDP targeting rather than money supply targeting. A really (really!) optimistic spin on Mr. Hu speech is that China indeed is moving in that direction.

Finally thanks to Nicolas for the pointer to Mr. Ho’s speech. If you like this post give the credit to Nicolas, but if you hated it blame me. Have a look at Nicolas blog (in French – I have understand nothing…) here.

Monetary disorder – not animal spirits – caused the Great Recession

If one follows the financial media on a daily basis as I do there is ample room to get both depressed and frustrated over the coverage of the financial markets. Often market movements are described as being very irrational and the description of what is happening in the markets is often based on an “understanding” of economic agents as somebody who have huge mood swings due to what Keynes termed animal spirits.

Swings in the financial markets created by these animal spirits then apparently impact the macroeconomy through the impact on investment and private consumption. In this understanding markets move up and down based on rather irrational mood swings among investors. This is what Robert Hetzel has called the “market disorder”-view. It is market imperfections and particularly the animal spirits of investors which created swings not only in the markets, but also in the financial markets. Bob obviously in his new book convincingly demonstrates that this “theory” is grossly flawed and that animal spirits is not the cause of neither the volatility in the markets nor did animal spirits cause the present crisis.

The Great Recession is a result of numerous monetary policy mistakes – this is the “monetary disorder”-view – rather than a result of irrational investors behaving as drunken fools. This is very easy to illustrate. Just have a look first at S&P500 during the Great Recession.

The 6-7 phases of the Great Recession – so far

We can basically spot six or seven overall phases in S&P500 since the onset of the crisis. In my view all of these phases or shifts in “market sentiment” can easy be shown to coincide with monetary policy changes from either the Federal Reserve or the ECB (or to some extent also the PBoC).

We can start out with the very unfortunate decision by the ECB to hike interest rates in July 2008. Shortly after the ECB hike the S&P500 plummeted (and yes, yes Lehman Brother collapses in the process). The free fall in S&P500 was to some extent curbed by relatively steep interest rate reductions in the Autumn of 2008 from all of the major central banks in the world. However, the drop in the US stock markets did not come to an end before March 2009.

March-April 2009: TAF and dollar swap lines

However, from March-April 2009 the US stock markets recovered strongly and the recovery continued all through 2009. So what happened in March-April 2009? Did all investors suddenly out of the blue become optimists? Nope. From early March the Federal Reserve stepped up its efforts to improve its role as lender-of-last resort. The de facto collapse of the Fed primary dealer system in the Autumn of 2008 had effective made it very hard for the Fed to function as a lender-of-last-resort and effectively the Fed could not provide sufficient dollar liquidity to the market. See more on this topic in George Selgin’s excellent paper  “L Street: Bagehotian Prescriptions for a 21st-Century Money Market”.

Here especially the two things are important. First, the so-called Term Auction Facility (TAF). TAF was first introduced in 2007, but was expanded considerably on March 9 2009. This is also the day the S&P500 bottomed out! That is certainly no coincidence.

Second, on April 9 when the Fed announced that it had opened dollar swap lines with a number of central banks around the world. Both measures significantly reduced the lack of dollar liquidity. As a result the supply of dollars effectively was increased sharply relatively to the demand for dollars. This effectively ended the first monetary contraction during the early stage of the Great Recession and the results are very visible in S&P500.

This as it very clear from the graph above the Fed’s effects to increase the supply of dollar liquidity in March-April 2009 completely coincides with the beginning of the up-leg in the S&P500. It was not animal spirits that triggered the recovery in S&P500, but rather easier monetary conditions.

January-April 2010: Swap lines expiry, Chinese monetary tightening and Fed raises discount rate

The dollar swap lines expired February 1 2010. That could hardly be a surprise to the markets, but nonetheless this seem to have coincided with the S&P500 beginning to loose steam in the early part of 2010. However, it was probably more important that speculation grew in the markets that global central banks could move to tighten monetary conditions in respond to the continued recovery in the global economy at that time.

On January 12 2010 the People’s Bank of China increased reserve requirements for the Chinese banks. In the following months the PBoC moved to tighten monetary conditions further. Other central banks also started to signal future monetary tightening.

Even the Federal Reserve signaled that it might be reversing it’s monetary stance. Hence, on February 18 2010 the Fed increased the discount rate by 25bp. The Fed insisted that it was not monetary tightening, but judging from the market reaction it could hardly be seen by investors as anything else.

Overall the impression investors most have got from the actions from PBoC, the Fed and other central banks in early 2010 was that the central banks now was moving closer to initiating monetary tightening. Not surprisingly this coincides with the S&P500 starting to move sideways in the first half of 2010. This also coincides with the “Greek crisis” becoming a market theme for the first time.

August 27 2010: Ben Bernanke announces QE2 and stock market takes off again

By mid-2010 it had become very clear that talk of monetary tightening had bene premature and the Federal Reserve started to signal that a new round of monetary easing might be forthcoming and on August 27 at his now famous Jackson Hole speech Ben Bernanke basically announced a new round quantitative easing – the so-called QE2. The actual policy was not implemented before November, but as any Market Monetarist would tell you – it is the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy: Monetary policy mainly works through expectations.

The quasi-announcement of QE2 on August 27 is pretty closely connected with another up-leg in S&P500 starting in August 2010. The actual upturn in the market, however, started slightly before Bernanke’s speech. This is probably a reflection that the markets started to anticipate that Bernanke was inching closer to introducing QE2. See for example this news article from early August 2010. This obviously is an example of Scott Sumner’s point that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Hence, monetary policy might be working before it is actually announced if the market start to price in the action beforehand.

April and July 2011: The ECB’s catastrophic rate hikes

The upturn in the S&P500 lasted the reminder of 2010 and continued into 2011, but commodity prices also inched up and when two major negative supply shocks (revolutions in Northern Africa and the Japanese Tsunami) hit in early 2011 headline inflation increased in the euro zone. This triggered the ECB to take the near catastrophic decision to increase interest rates twice – once in April and then again in July. At the same time the ECB also started to scale back liquidity programs.

The market movements in the S&P500 to a very large extent coincide with the ECB’s rate hikes. The ECB hiked the first time on April 7. Shortly there after – on April 29 – the S&P500 reached it’s 2011 peak. The ECB hiked for the second time on July 7 and even signaled more rate hikes! Shortly thereafter S&P500 slumped. This obviously also coincided with the “euro crisis” flaring up once again.

September-December 2011: “Low for longer”, Operation twist and LTRO – cleaning up your own mess

The re-escalation of the European crisis got the Federal Reserve into action. On September 9 2011 the FOMC announced that it would keep interest rates low at least until 2013. Not exactly a policy that is in the spirit of Market Monetarism, but nonetheless a signal that the Fed acknowledged the need for monetary easing. Interestingly enough September 9 2011 was also the date where the three-month centered moving average of S&P500 bottomed out.

On September 21 2011 the Federal Reserve launched what has come to be known as Operation Twist. Once again this is certainly not a kind of monetary operation which is loved by Market Monetarists, but again at least it was an signal that the Fed acknowledged the need for monetary easing.

The Fed’s actions in September pretty much coincided with S&P500 starting a new up-leg. The recovery in S&P500 got further imputes after the ECB finally acknowledged a responsibility for cleaning up the mess after the two rate hikes earlier in 2011 and on December 8 the ECB introduced the so-called 3-year longer-term refinancing operations (LTRO).

The rally in S&P500 hence got more momentum after the introduction of the 3-year LTRO in December 2011 and the rally lasted until March-April 2012.

The present downturn: Have a look at ECB’s new collateral rules

We are presently in the midst of a new crisis and the media attention is on the Greek political situation and while the need for monetary policy easing in the euro zone finally seem to be moving up on the agenda there is still very little acknowledgement in the general debate about the monetary causes of this crisis. But again we can explain the last downturn in S&P500 by looking at monetary policy.

On March 23 the ECB moved to tighten the rules for banks’ use of assets as collateral. This basically coincided with the S&P500 reaching its peak for the year so far on March 19 and in the period that has followed numerous European central bankers have ruled out that there is a need for monetary easing (who are they kidding?)

Conclusion: its monetary disorder and not animal spirits

Above I have tried to show that the major ups and downs in the US stock markets since 2008 can be explained by changes monetary policy by the major central banks in the world. Hence, the volatility in the markets is a direct consequence of monetary policy failure rather than irrational investor behavior. Therefore, the best way to ensure stability in the financial markets is to ensure nominal stability through a rule based monetary policy. It is time for central banks to do some soul searching rather than blaming animal spirits.

This in no way is a full account of the causes of the Great Recession, but rather meant to show that changes in monetary policy – rather than animal spirits – are at the centre of market movements over the past four years. I have used the S&P500 to illustrate this, but a similar picture would emerge if the story was told with US or German bond yields, inflation expectations, commodity prices or exchange rates.

Appendix: Some Key monetary changes during the Great Recession

July 2008: ECB hikes interest rates

March-April 2009: Fed expand TAF and introduces dollar swap lines

January-April 2010: Swap lines expiry, Chinese monetary tightening and Fed raises discount rate

August 27 2010: Bernanke announces QE2

April and July 2011: The ECB hike interest rates twice

September-December 2011: Fed announces policy to keep rate very low until the end of 2013 and introduces “operation twist”. The ECB introduces the 3-year LTRO

March 2012: ECB tightens collateral rules

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