Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation

There is a couple of topics that have been on my mind lately and they have made me want to write this post. In the post I will claim that inflation targeting is a soft-version of what economists have called the fear-of-floating. But before getting to that let me run through the topics on my mind.

1) Last week I did a presentation for a group of Norwegian investors and even thought the topic was the Central and Eastern European economies the topic of Norwegian monetary politics came up. I am no big expert on the Norwegian economy or Norwegian monetary policy so I ran for the door or rather I started to talk about an other large oil producing economy, which I know much better – The Russian economy. I essentially re-told what I recently wrote about in a blog post on the Russian central bank causing the 2008/9-crisis in the Russian economy, by not allowing the ruble to drop in line with oil prices in the autumn of 2008. I told the Norwegian investors that the Russian central bank was suffering from a fear-of-floating. That rang a bell with the Norwegian investors – and they claimed – and rightly so I think – that the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank) also suffers from a fear-of-floating. They had an excellent point: The Norwegian economy is booming, domestic demand continues to growth very strongly despite weak global growth, asset prices – particularly property prices – are rising strongly and unemployment is very low and finally do I need to mention that Norwegian NGDP long ago have returned to the pre-crisis trend? So all in all if anything the Norwegian economy probably needs tighter monetary policy rather than easier monetary policy. However, this is not what Norges Bank is discussing. If anything the Norges Bank has recently been moving towards monetary easing. In fact in March Norges Bank surprised investors by cutting interest rates and directly cited the strength of the Norwegian krone as a reason for the rate cut.

2) My recent interest in Jeff Frankel’s idea that commodity exporters should peg their currency to the price of the main export (PEP) has made me think about the connect between floating exchange rates and what monetary target the central bank operates. Frankel in one of his papers shows that historically there has been a rather high positive correlation between higher import prices and monetary tightening (currency appreciation) in countries with floating exchange rates and inflation targeting. The mechanism is clear – strict inflation targeting central banks an increase in import prices will cause headline inflation to increase as the aggregate supply curve shots to the left and as the central bank does not differentiate between supply shocks and nominal shocks it will react to a negative supply shock by tightening monetary policy causing the currency to strengthen. Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that central banks should not react to supply shocks and should allow higher import prices to feed through to higher inflation – this is basically George Selgin’s productivity norm. Very few central banks allow this to happen – just remember the ECB’s two ill-fated rate hikes in 2011, which primarily was a response to higher import prices. Sad, but true.

3) Scott Sumner tells us that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Expectations are tremendously important for the monetary transmission mechanism. One of the main channels by which monetary policy works in a small-open economy  – with long and variable leads – is the exchange rate channel. Taking the point 2 into consideration any investor would expect the ECB to tighten monetary policy  in responds to a negative supply shock in the form of a increase in import prices. Therefore, we would get an automatic strengthening of the euro if for example oil prices rose. The more credible an inflation target’er the central bank is the stronger the strengthening of the currency. On the other hand if the central bank is not targeting inflation, but instead export prices as Frankel is suggesting or the NGDP level then the currency would not “automatically” tend to strengthen in responds to higher oil prices. Hence, the correlation between the currency and import prices strictly depends on what monetary policy rule is in place.

These three point leads me to the conclusion that inflation targeting really just is a stealth version of the fear-of-floating. So why is that? Well, normally we would talk about the fear-of-floating when the central bank acts and cut rates in responds to the currency strengthening (at a point in time when the state of the economy does not warrant a rate cut). However, in a world of forward-looking investors the currency tends move as-if we had the old-fashioned form of fear-of-floating – it might be that higher oil prices leads to a strengthening of the Norwegian krone, but expectations of interest rate cuts will curb the strengthen of NOK. Similarly the euro is likely to be stronger than it otherwise would have been when oil prices rise as the ECB again and again has demonstrated the it reacts to negative supply shocks with monetary easing.

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation 

And this lead me to my conclusion. We cannot fundamentally say that currencies are truly floating as long as central banks continue to react to higher import prices due to inflation targeting mandates. We might formally have laid behind us the days of managed exchange rates (at least in North America and Europe), but de facto we have reintroduced it with inflation targeting. As a consequence monetary policy becomes excessively easy (tight) when import prices are dropping (increasing) and this is the recipe for boom-bust. Therefore, floating exchange rates and inflation targeting is not that happy a couple it often is made out to be and we can fundamentally only talk about truly floating exchange rates when monetary policy cease to react to supply shocks.

Therefore, the best way to ensure true exchange rates flexibility is through NGDP level targeting and if we want to manage exchange rates then at least do it by targeting the export price rather than the import price.

“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression

Even though I am a Danish economist I am certainly no expert on the Danish economy and I have certainly not spend much time blogging about the Danish economy and I have no plans to change that in the future. However, for some reason I today came to think about what would have been the impact on the Danish economy if the Danish krone had been pegged to the price of bacon rather than to gold at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Lets call it the Bacon Standard – or a the PIG PEG (thanks to Mikael Bonde Nielsen for that suggestion).

Today less than 10% of Danish export revenues comes from bacon export – back during in the 1920s it was much more sizable and agricultural products dominated export revenues and Denmark’s main trading partner was Great Britain. Since bacon prices and other agricultural product were highly correlated (and still are) the bacon price probably would have been a very good proxy for Danish export prices. Hence, a the PIG PEG would basically have been similar to Jeff Frankel’s Peg the Export Price (PEP) proposal (see my earlier posts on this idea here and here).

When the global crisis hit in 1929 it put significant downward pressure on global agricultural prices and in two years most agricultural prices had been halved. As a consequence of the massive drop in agricultural prices – including bacon prices – the crisis put a serious negative pressures on the Danish krone peg against gold. Denmark had relatively successfully reintroduced the gold standard in 1927, but when the crisis hit things changed dramatically.

Initially the Danish central bank (Danmarks Nationalbank) defended the gold standard and as a result the Danish economy was hit by a sharp monetary contraction. As I argued in my post on Russian monetary policy a negative shock to export prices is not a supply shock, but rather a negative demand shock under a fixed exchange rate regime – like the gold standard. Said in another way the Danish AD curve shifted sharply to the left.

The shock had serious consequences. Hence, Danish economic activity collapsed as most places in the world, unemployment spiked dramatically and strong deflationary pressures hit the economy.

Things got even worse when the British government in 1931 decided to give up the gold standard and eventually the Danish government decided to follow the lead from the British government and also give up the gold standard. However, unlike Sweden the Danish authorities felt very uncomfortable to go it’s own ways (like today…) and it was announced that the krone would be re-pegged against sterling. That strongly limited the expansionary impact of the decision to give up the gold standard. Therefore, it is certainly no coincidence that Swedish economy performed much better than the Danish economy during the 1930s.

The Danish economy, however, started to recovery in 1933. Two events spurred the recovery. First, FDR’s decision to give the gold standard helped the US economy to begin pulling out of the recovery and that helped global commodity prices which certainly helped Danish agricultural exports. Second, the so-called  Kanslergade Agreementa political agreement named after the home address of then Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning in the street Kanslergade in Copenhagen – lead to a devaluation of the Danish krone. Both events effectively were monetary easing.

What would the Bacon standard have done for the Danish economy?

While monetary easing eventually started to pull Denmark out of the Great Depression it didn’t happen before four year into the crisis and the recovery never became as impressive as the development in Sweden. Had Denmark instead had a Bacon Standard then things would likely have played out in a significantly more positive way. Hence, had the Danish krone been pegged to the price of bacon then it would have been “automatically” devalued already in 1929 and the gradual devaluation would have continued until 1933 after, which rising commodity prices (and bacon prices) gradually would have lead to a tightening of monetary conditions.

In my view had Denmark had the PIG PEG in 1929 the crisis would been much more short-lived and the economy would fast have recovered from the crisis. Unfortunately that was not the case and four years was wasted defending an insanely tight monetary policy.

Monetary disequilibrium leads to interventionism   

The Danish authorities’ decision to maintain the gold standard and then to re-peg to sterling had significant economic and social consequences. As a consequence the public support for interventionist policies grew dramatically and effectively lay the foundation for what came to be known as the danish “Welfare State”. Hence, the Kanslergade Agreement not only lead to a devaluation of the krone, but also to a significant expansion of the role of government in the Danish economy. In that sense the Kanslergade Agreement has parallels to FDR’s policies during the Great Depression – monetary easing, but also more interventionist policies.

Hence, the Danish experience is an example of Milton Friedman’s argument that monetary disequilibrium caused by a fixed exchange rate policy is likely to increase interventionist tendencies.

Bon appetite – or as we say in Danish velbekomme…

Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Nominal GDP targeting makes a lot of sense for large currency areas like the US or the euro zone and it make sense that the central bank can implement a NGDP target through open market operations or as with the use of NGDP futures. However, operationally it might be much harder to implement a NGDP target in small open economies and particularly in Emerging Markets countries where there might be much more uncertainty regarding the measurement of NGDP and it will be hard to introduce NGDP futures in relatively underdeveloped and illiquid financial markets in Emerging Markets countries.

I have earlier (see here and here) suggested that a NGDP could be implemented through managing the FX rate – for example through a managed float against a basket of currencies – similar to the praxis of the Singaporean monetary authorities. However, for some time I have been intrigued by a proposal made by Jeffrey Frankel. What Frankel has suggested in a number of papers over the last decade is basically that small open economies and Emerging Markets – especially commodity exporters – could peg their currency to the price of the country’s main export commodity. Hence, for example Russia should peg the ruble to the price of oil – so a X% increase in oil prices would automatically lead to a X% appreciation of the ruble against the US dollar.

Frankel has termed this proposal PEP – Peg the Export Price. Any proponent of NGDP level target should realise that PEP has some attractive qualities.

I would especially from a Market Monetarist highlight two positive features that PEP has in common in (futures based) NGDP targeting. First, PEP would ensure a strict nominal anchor in the form of a FX peg. This would in reality remove any discretion in monetary policy – surely an attractive feature. Second, contrary to for example inflation targeting or price level targeting PEP does not react to supply shocks.

Lets have a closer look at the second feature – PEP and supply shocks. A key feature of NGDP targeting (and what George Selgin as termed the productivity norm) is that it does not distort relative market prices – hence, an negative supply shock will lead to higher prices (and temporary higher inflation) and similarly positive supply shocks will lead to lower prices (and benign deflation). As David Eagle teaches us – this ensures Pareto optimality and is not distorting relative prices. Contrary to this a negative supply shock will lead to a tightening of monetary policy under a inflation targeting regime. Under PEP the monetary authorities will not react to supply shock.

Hence, if the currency is peg to export prices and the economy is hit by an increase in import prices (for example higher oil prices – a negative supply shock for oil importers) then the outcome will be that prices (and inflation) will increase. However, this is not monetary inflation. Hence, what I inspired by David Eagle has termed Quasi-Real Prices (QRPI) have not increased and hence monetary policy under PEP is not distorting relative prices. Any Market Monetarist would tell you that that is a very positive feature of a monetary policy rule.

Therefore as I see it in terms of supply shocks PEP is basically a variation of NGDP targeting implemented through an exchange rate policy. The advantage of PEP over a NGDP target is that it operationally is much less complicated to implement. Take for example Russia – anybody who have done research on the Russian economy (I have done a lot…) would know that Russian economic data is notoriously unreliable. As a consequence, it would probably make much more sense for the Russian central bank simply to peg the ruble to oil prices rather than trying to implement a NGDP target (at the moment the Russian central bank is managing the ruble a basket of euros and dollars).

PEP seems especially to make sense for Emerging Markets commodity exporters like Russia or Latin American countries like Brazil or Chile. Obviously PEP would also make a lot for sense for African commodity exporters like Zambia. Zambia’s main export is copper and it would therefore make sense to peg the Zambian kwacha against the price of copper.

Jeffrey Frankel has written numerous papers on PEP and variations of PEP. Interestingly enough Frankel was also an early proponent of NGDP targeting. Unfortunately, however, he does not discussion the similarities and differences between NGDP targeting and PEP in any of his papers. However, as far as I read his research it seems like PEP would lead to stabilisation of NGDP – at least much more so than a normal fixed exchange regime or inflation targeting.

One aspect I would especially find interesting is a discussion of shocks to money demand (velocity shocks) under PEP. Unfortunately Frankel does not discuss this issue in any of his papers. This is not entirely surprising as his focus is on commodity exporters. However, the Great Recession experience shows that any monetary policy rule that is not able in someway to react to velocity shocks are likely to be problematic in one way or another.

I hope to return to PEP and hope especially to return to the impact of velocity-shocks under PEP.

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Links to Frankel’s papers on PEP etc. can be found on Frankel’s website. See here.

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