Bank of England should leave forecasting to Ladbrokes

Last week former Federal Reserve economist David Stockton’s report on Bank of England’s forecasting track record was published. City AM had this wrap-up (I didn’t read the report yet):

“INFLATION has been damaging British living standards and dragging down the economy – but the officials who are meant to keep a lid on prices didn’t do enough to help because their forecasts were too often wrong, according to a Bank of England report out today.

And even though the Bank was consistently worse at predicting changes in growth and inflation than other economists, it stuck with its flawed model, making excuses for its errors instead of trying to improve its forecasts.”

I would probably be less critical about that Bank of England’s forecasting abilities – or rather I know how hard it is to forecast anything, but I am not surprised to learn that Stockton find that BoE’s forecasts are biased. In fact I would be surprised if he had found that it was not biased. Central banks have strong incentives to do biased forecasts – and sometimes that might actually be what you want central banks to do. I for example find it very odd when central bank forecast that they will fail in achieving their policy objectives, but I also realize that central banks fail to hit their policy targets all the time.

David Stockton has 21 ideas to improve BoE’s forecasting abilities. Some of Stockton’s ideas are probably good, but I think that there is a more fundamental problem – and that is that central banks’ in-house forecasts very likely always will be biased. Therefore central banks should outsource forecasting – not because other institutions or companies (like banks!) necessarily are better at making forecasts than central banks, but because the forecasts of “outside” agents is likely to be much less biased than a in-house forecast.

One way would be to simply to outsource the forecasting to a private research company. Another possibility would be to base the forecast on a survey of professional forecasts – or even better as I have suggested numerous times that the central bank simply set-up a prediction market. In Britain that would be extremely easy – I don’t think there is a country in the world with so many bookmakers. The Bank of England could simply ask a company like Ladbrokes or a similar company to set-up betting markets for key macro economic variables – such as inflation and nominal GDP. It would be extremely cheap and the forecast created from such prediction market would likely be at least as good as what is presently produced by the otherwise clever staff at the BoE.

Related posts:

Yet another argument for prediction markets: “Reputation and Forecast Revisions: Evidence from the FOMC”
Benn & Ben – would prediction markets be of interest to you?
Prediction markets and government budget forecasts
Central banks should set up prediction markets
Scott’s prediction market
Ben maybe you should try “policy futures”?
What can Niskanan teach us about central bank bureaucrats?
Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making
Please fasten your seatbelt and try to beat the market

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

Bernanke, Obama and the political business cycle – and some research ideas

This week I attended a presentation by my good friend and professor of political science at the University Copenhagen Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard about the upcoming US presidential elections. In his presentation Peter presented some of his models for predicting the outcome of US presidential elections.

Peter’s thesis is that what determines the US presidential election primarily is the economic situation in the US in the 8 quarters prior to the election. Peter’s models are inspired by Douglas Hibbs’ so-called “bread and peace” models.

If Peter is right – and I think he is – then the US president and his party will have an incentive to manipulate the business cycle to peak just prior to the elections. This is of course also is what inspired a large theoretical and empirical literature on the so-called political business cycles (PBC).

Most PBC models focus on fiscal policy. In William Nordhaus’ traditional PBC model the government would increase public spending and/or cut taxes prior to the elections and as Nordhaus assumed a traditional keynesian model of the world the government would hence be able to manipulate the business cycle.

The fact that Nordhaus assumed a rather naive keynesian model of the world obviously is also a big problem with the model and with the integration of rational expectations in macroeconomic models in 1980s and 1990s it also became increasingly clear that even though Nordhaus’ traditional PBC model is intuitively appealing it did not stand the test of time.

The biggest problem with the traditional PBC models, however, is they disregarded the importance of monetary policy. Hence, it might be that a government or a president can increase public spending prior to an election to try to get reelected, but how will the central bank react to that? Obviously if the central bank is under political control the government can just dictate to the central bank to play along and to ease monetary policy prior to the elections.

However, it is not given that the central bank is under the control of the government. In fact the central bank might even be hostile to the government and favour the opposition and in that case the central bank might actually itself be involved in manipulating the business cycle to achieve a certain political outcome which would be in contrast to what the government would like to see. In an earlier post I have described how the Bundesbank in the early 1990s punished the Helmut Kohl’s government for overly easy fiscal policy following the German reunification. This hardly helped Kohl’s government, but the Bundesbank was nonetheless unsuccessful in its indirect attempt to oust Kohl.

Did Bernanke just ensure Obama’s reelection?

During Peter’s presentation he highlighted that political prediction markets such – as the Iowa Electronic Markets – are better at predicting the outcome of US presidential elections than opinion polls. I certainly agree with Peter on this issue and therefore one of my first thoughts just after the FOMC announced it new policy action on September 13 was to think about how this influences Obama’s reelection chances.

If Peters models are right that higher real GDP growth increases the likelihood that Obama will be reelected and if I am right that I think Bernanke’s actions will likely spur real GDP growth in the short-run then the answer must be that Bernanke just helped Obama get reelected.

So what are the prediction markets saying? Well, there is no question that Obama’s election chances have increased significantly in recently. Political pundits talk about Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democrats’ convention or Romney’s not too elegant comments about Democrat voters. However, both Peter and I know that that is not really what is important. To us it is as James Carville used to say “It’s the economy, stupid”

Just have a look at the market pricing of Obama’s reelection chances – this is data from intrade.com:

I think it is pretty clear – the Federal Reserve’s actions on September 13 have helped increase the likelihood of Obama getting reelected. Whether this is good or bad is a separate matter, but it certainly illustrates that if you want to be elected president in the US you want to have fed on your side.

This is not major news – for example former Fed chairman Arthur Burn’s rather scary account  “Inside the Nixon Administration” – of his meetings with President Nixon shows that Nixon certainly was well-aware that the fed’s actions could do a lot to increase his reelection chances and that he put a lot of pressure on Burns to ease monetary policy prior to 1972 presidential elections (See my earlier post on Nixon and Burns here and Burton Abrams’ excellent discussion of the same topic here.)

This is of course also why you want to depoliticize monetary policy and get it as far away from political influence as possible – if politicians gets to control monetary policy the likelihood that they will misuse that power certainly is very high. Here the keyword is depoliticize – you in general don’t want central banks to interfere in politics for good or for bad. The central bank should just take fiscal policy as a given and respond to it only to the extent that it has an impact of it’s monetary policy target. That also includes that the central bank should not punish governments for bad policies either – as the ECB seem to be doing.

In the case of the present situation in the US it is therefore paradoxical that the Obama administration apparently has done so little to influence the decisions at the fed. So even though the Obama administration has appointed numerous Fed policy makers it does not look as if any attempt has been made to appoint Fed officials that would press for monetary easing – which obviously would have been in Obama’s interest (note this is an uneducated outsider’s guess…). This might be because the president’s main economic advisors are staunch keynesians who have little time for monetary policy matters. So if Obama is not reelected he might want to blame Larry Summers for past sins. It is equally a paradox that the fact that the Fed now seems to be moving in the direction of a more ruled based policy is what likely will help Obama get reelected.

Ideas for future research 

When I started thinking about writing this blog post I actually started out with a research idea and I want to get back to that. One of the reasons that the literature on political business cycles has not produced any general conclusions or strong empirical results is in my view that models predictions are so dependent on what assumptions are made about the institutional set-up. Is the central bank for example independent or not? Will monetary policy counteract or accommodate pre-election spending?

I therefore think that there is scope for new research on particularly central bank’s institutional structures and how that might influence the political business cycle.

In the case of the US and the Federal Reserve I think it would be very interesting to study how different FOMC member’s partisan affiliations influence their voting during the election cycle. Would for example FOMC member appointed by the president vote for easier monetary policies prior to presidential elections? And will FOMC members from certain Fed districts vote in a way favorable to the dominant political affiliation of the given fed district?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think it could be a rather interesting research project…

PS Peter’s model predicts that it will be 50/50 on who wins that presidential elections. If he is right then the present market pricing which clear favours Obama is wrong. Do you trust the models of a political scientist more than the market? I am sure that Peter would be on the side of the market…

PPS I should stress that I think that Bernanke and his colleagues with its latest actions have moved closer to a rule based monetary policy, which in itself should reduce the risk of political motivated monetary policy and I in general think that it is positive. That, however, does not change the fact that that might also have helped Obama. Whether that is a positive or negative side-effect dependents on your (party) political views and I luckily don’t have to have a view on who should win the US presidential elections…

PPPS Obviously the best way to avoid political business cycles is a strongly rule based monetary policy – such as NGDP level targeting, fixed exchange rates, a gold standard or free banking…some of these options I like better than others.

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Related post – Se how the ECB also has had significant impact on Obama’s reelection changes:“Will Draghi’s LTRO get Obama reelected?”

Will Draghi’s LTRO get Obama reelected?

Following the US media’s reporting on the Republican primaries it seems like the candidate who will be nominated for the GOP candidacy for US presidency and who will eventually might win the presidential elections will be decided by their views about a retro-toy called  Etch A SketMight I suggest that US political pundits instead start following the actions of an Italian called Mario – Mario Draghi!

On December 8 the ECB under the leadership of newly appointed ECB chief Mario Draghi moved to ease monetary policy by introducing the so-called 3-year LTRO.

See what happened to President Obama’s reelection chances after the introduction of the 3-year LRTO. The chance of reelection shortly after jumped by 10 percentage points according the prediction market InTrade.

Believe it or not but the GOP hopefuls probably miss the French guy – Jean-Claude Trichet the former ECB boss who twice hiked interest rates last year. Last time July 7 – and look what that did to Obama’s reelection chances. Don’t tell me that monetary policy is not important – also for Santorum, Romney and Obama…

 

Yet another argument for prediction markets: “Reputation and Forecast Revisions: Evidence from the FOMC”

I am already spamming my readers today so this will not be a long post. But take a look at this working paper – “Reputation and Forecast Revisions: Evidence from the FOMC” by 

Peter Tillmann. Here is the abstract:

“This paper investigates how FOMC members revise their forecasts for key macroeconomic variables. Based on a new data set of forecasts from individual FOMC members between 1992 and 2000 it is shown that FOMC members intentionally overrevise their forecasts at the first revision and underrevise at the final revision date. This pattern of rationally biased forecasts is similar to that of private sector forecasters and is consistent with theories of reputation building among forecasters. The FOMC’s shift towards more transparency in 1994 had an impact on how members revised their forecasts and intensified the tendency to underrevise at the later stage of the forecasting process. The tendency to underrevise, i.e. to smooth forecast revisions, is particularly strong for nonvoting members of the committee.”

HT George Farnon

Benn & Ben – would prediction markets be of interest to you?

Benn Steil from the Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting comment on the Federal Reserve’s forecasting performance. I don’t really want to discuss Benn Steil’s views, but rather the fed research he quotes.

Here is Steil:

“The Fed studied its own staff’s forecasting performance over the period 1986 to 2006. It found that the average root mean squared error—or the deviation from the actual result—for the staff’s next-year gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts was 1.34, compared with 1.29 by what the Fed describes as a “large group” of private forecasters. That is, the Fed’s predicting performance was worse than that of market-watchers outside the Fed. For next-year CPI forecasts, the error term was 1.03 for Fed staff, and only 0.93 for private forecasters. The Fed’s conclusion? In its own words, its “historical forecast errors are large in economic terms.”

I have unfortunately not be able to locate the research quoted by Steil so if anybody out there can locate it please let me know. I have the feeling that the research is rather old – and as such Steil’s story is not really “breaking news”.

Anyway what can I say? The Fed is not able to beat the “consensus forecast”. That is not really surprising. That does not show that the Fed economists in anyway are incompetent. It just shows that the “market” or the wisdowm of the crowds is better at forecasting than the Fed. In fact the “consensus” will most of the time beat any professional forecaster.

So the relevant question that Steil should ask is why is the Fed doing forecast instead of leaving it to the market. The Fed of course should set-up a prediction market rather than relying on in-house forecasts – especially when the market clearly is better at forecasting than the skilled economists at the Fed.

By the way contrary to what Steil implies I don’t think we can say anything about whether the Fed should be trusted or not based on the Fed’s forecasting performance. In fact if the Fed consistently was able to beat the market then I guess the market would pretty fast adopt the Fed forecast. There is a lot of reason to be skeptical about the Fed, but the “average” forecasting performance of the Fed’s staff is not one of them. I have personally been doing a lot of forecasting over the years and I would never claim that I am better at forecasting that the “crowd” so this is not a critique of the Fed economists, but rather an endorsement of the market.

See my previous posts on the use of prediction markets in the conduct of monetary policy.

Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making
Prediction markets and government budget forecasts
Please fasten your seatbelt and try to beat the market
Central banks should set up prediction markets

PS Mr. Steil might be interested in noting that market expectations for medium-term inflation still is well below 2%. Contrary to what Mr. Steil seems to think US monetary policy is overly tight! Unfortunately neither Benn nor Ben seem to care much about market expectations…

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Update: George Farnon alerted me to this article: Federal Open Market Committee forecasts: Guesses or guidance? It is yet another argument for prediction markets…the Fed would never dare…

What can Niskanan teach us about central bank bureaucrats?

 Numerous studies have shown that prediction markets performs remarkably well. For example prediction markets consistently beats opinion polls in predicting the outcome of elections. In general the wisdom of crowds is an extremely powerful tool for forecasting and there no doubt the markets are the best aggregators of information known to man.

Market Monetarists advocate using the power of prediction markets to guide monetary policy. Scott Sumner of course is advocating using NGDP futures in the implementation of monetary policy (as do I). Furthermore, I have advocated that central banks replace their internal macroeconomic forecasts with prediction markets and also that central banks could use Robin Hanson-style prediction markets to choose between different policy instruments in the implementation of monetary policy.

The advantages of using prediction markets are in my view so obvious that one can only wonder why prediction markets are not used more by policy makers – not only in monetary policy, but just think about the endless discussions about “climate change”. Why have policy makers not set-up prediction markets for the outcome of different “climate initiatives”? I think the explanation have to be found in public choice theory.

William Niskanen argues forcefully in his classic book on “Bureaucracy and Representative Government” (1971) that bureaucrats are no different from the rest of us – their actions are determined by what is in their own self-interest. Niskanen claims – and I think he is more or less right (I used to be civil servant) – that that implies that bureaucrats are maximizing budgets.

So how do bureaucrats maximize their department budgets? Well, it’s really simply – they use asymmetrical information. Take what is now called the Department of Homeland Security in the US. The job of the Department of Homeland Security’s is to monitor the risk of terror attacks on the US and implement policies to reduce the threat against “homeland security” (whatever that is…). If the Department of Homeland Security can convince the US taxpayers that the US faces a massive terror threat then the department is more likely to get allocated more funds. So if the Department of Homeland Security bureaucrats want to maximize their budget then it just have to convince the American public that the US faces a very large terror threat.

The average US taxpayer does not really have a large incentive to go out and find out how big the terror threat really is and remember as Bryan Caplan tells us that voters tend to be rationally irrational (they don’t really have an incentive to be rational in terms of political issues) and as a consequence the average US taxpayer would happily accept any assessment made by the Department of Homeland Security about the level of the terror threat. Hence, if the Department of Homeland Security overestimates the terror threat it will be able to increase its budget and as the Department has superior knowledge of the real threat level it can easily to do so. This of course is just an example and I have no clue whether the authorities are overestimating the terror threat (I am sure my US readers will be happy to tell me if this is the case).

Hence, a bureaucrat can according to Niskanen’s theory maximize its budgets by using asymmetrical information. However, there is a way around this and reduce the power of bureaucrats. It is really simple – we just introduce prediction markets.

Lets say that we set up one prediction market asking the following question: “Will more people die in terror attacks than in will die in drowning accidents in the US in 2012?”  – Then this “terror/drowning”-prediction could be used to allocate funds to the Department of Homeland Security. My guess is that we would be looking at major budget cuts at the Department of Homeland Security. What do you think?

Anyway, my concern is not really the Department of Homeland Security, but rather monetary policy. If you think that the bureaucrats at the US Department of Homeland Security would use asymmetrical information to increase their budgets what do you think central banks around the world would do? Why would you expect central bank’s to pursue any given economic target in the conduct of monetary policy? And why would you trust the central banks to produce unbiased forecasts etc.?

Why is it for example that the Federal Reserve is so reluctant to formulate a clear nominal target? Could it be that it would not be in the bureaucratic interest of the institution? Could it be that central bank bureaucrats are afraid that they would be held accountable if they miss their target?

I don’t know if it is so, but if not then why not just formulate a clear and measurable nominal target? For example a target to increase nominal GDP by 10% by the end of 2013? And why not then use the opportunity to set up a NGDP futures markets? And why not let prediction markets take care of the Fed’s forecasts?

I am not saying that Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are Niskanen style bureaucrats, but if they want to prove that they are not then I am sure that Scott Sumner or Robin Hanson will be happy to advise them on setting up a NGDP futures market (or any other prediction market).

Of course the US Congress (or whoever is in charge) could also just regulate the FOMC member’s salaries based on their ability to hit a given target…

PS The so-called Policy Analysis Market (PAM) actually was meant to be used to among other thing assess the global terror threat. The project was shot down after political criticism of the project.

PPS our friend Scott Sumner is not all about monetary policy – he has also done research on how to use Prediction Markets to Guide Global Warming Policy.

PPS George Selgin would of course tell us that there is an even better solution to the “central-bankers-as-budget-maximizing-bureaucrats”-problem…

Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making

George Mason University professor Robin Hanson in my view is one of the most thought-provoking and innovative thinkers in the world. I often read Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias and I always find my own views challenged and even though Hanson’s views often seem outrageous they surely make you think and personally I often conclude that Hanson is right.

One of Robin Hanson’s most provocative ideas is his suggestion to replace democracy with what he calls Futarchy. Hanson first presented this idea in his paper “Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Outcome?” originally from 2000 (and revised in 2007). Hanson’s view is that democracies often fail to aggregate information and different forms of bias – well known from the Public Choice literature – plague democracy, while the market mechanism is a much better aggregator of information that should be utilised in the decision making process.

Hanson thinks that democratically elected officials should vote on what objectives (“Values”) to pursue, but not on how to achieve these objectives.  Hanson instead suggest using Decision Markets to make decisions instead of voting on different proposals.

Most people will find Hanson’s suggestion outrageous and I am not advocating Futarchy as a general form of government, but I do think that Hanson’s idea have lot of merit in regard to the conduct of central banking (assuming that we want to have central banks in the first place…)

Today most “modern” central banks have some more or less clearly stated objective (“values” in Hanson’s terminology). For example the Swedish Riksbank, the New Zealand Reserve Bank or the Polish central bank all have relatively clearly defined inflation targets, while the ECB as objective has to ensure “price stability” (in praxis defined as an inflation target of 2%) and the Federal Reserve has the (in)famous “dual mandate” (price stability and a high level of employment). Market Monetarists of course are advocating NGDP level targeting.

Central banks around the world are relatively clear on what they want to achieve – at least on paper. However, when it comes to the question of how to achieve these objectives it is often a lot less clear. A reason for that is that economists often disagree on what model best describes the economy. Furthermore, often disagreement in what really should be the objective of the central bank blurs policy discussions. I have previously argued that central banks should utilise prediction markets to do macroeconomic forecasting, but why not take this one step further and listen to Robin Hanson and introduce Futarchy as the basis for decision-making in monetary policy? (Please note here that I am “just” thinking out loud here. I have no clue whether this is a good idea, but if we don’t play around with ideas we will never make progress…)

Today the decision-making process in most central banks follows a pretty well-defined “industry standard”, where policy decisions often are made on a monthly basis by what is often termed something like monetary policy committee (MPC). In the US this of course is the FOMC. Policy decisions are then made by a “democratic” method where the MPC members vote on different policy proposals – for example to cut or hike interest rates or to engage in asset buying and open market operations etc. The central bank’s research department will often play a key role in the decision making process as the research department will present scenario analysis based on different proposals. There are of course variations from country to country but I think this is pretty close to the “real-life” praxis in for example the Bank of England, the ECB and the Federal Reserve. The Bank of Israel is an interesting exemption. Here BoI governor Stanley Fischer is “monetary dictator” as he alone – at least on paper – makes decisions on monetary policy.

A monetary policy making process based on Futarchy would change that decision-making process in a significantly more transparent direction. Here is a simple illustrative “proposal” (I stress again that I am thinking out loud).

I imagine a four-step procedure. First, the MPC would vote on what objective to pursue – for example a NGDP level target and a target for the growth path of NGDP. Most likely that objective would be reaffirmed very month.

Second, each member of the MPC would be allowed to suggest a proposal for how to achieve the agreed policy objective. To make things simple the MPC would be asked to decide on from all the suggestions on three different suggestions based on the gross list of proposals. It would be conditioned that these proposals where clearly defined in terms of timing and execution – for example the central bank will buy X dollars (or whatever currency) of foreign currency every month in the coming 6 months or the central bank will increase the overnight rate by 25bp every quarter in the coming year. Compared to today’s policy-making process this would be much more transparent and clear to market participants.

Third, the central bank would set-up “policy markets” for each of the three policy proposals. These markets then will give an implicit estimate on the probability that each of the proposals will be successful in achieving the stated policy goal.  I imagine the markets are opened the day after the MPC decision and then be open initially for a week.

Forth, the one of the three policy proposals the market judges to have the highest probability of succeeding in achieving the policy objective is put into action. The two other policy markets would be closed down again and the investors in these markets would get their money back. This will happen one week after the three markets have been opened. Obviously the price of the chosen proposal would jump once it becomes clear that it will be put into action. This market will then automatically give a market based forecast on the likely outcome in terms of the overall policy objective of the chosen policy instrument.

Lets relate this to the present US monetary policy and lets assume the Fed has decided that it would target a return of NGDP to the pre-crisis trend by the end of 2014. The FOMC agrees on three alternative policy proposals to achieve this policy objective. 1) Ben’s solution: The Fed will keep interest rates at basically zero until late 2014. 2) Scott’s solution: The Fed will issue NGDP futures and target a level for the futures, which is compatible with the overall policy objective.  3) Irving’s solution: A modified version of the compensated dollar plan – the Fed will buy unlimited amounts of commodities until NGDP reaches the target level.

I wonder how the markets would price these three proposals, but it doesn’t really matter because if you believe in the wisdom of the crowds then you will trust the markets will choose the policy that best ensures the overall objective. Furthermore, a complete commitment to the overall set-up would probably ensure that the markets would do a lot of the lifting on its own.

But yes, let me just say that I am still just thinking out loud, but I am looking forward to hear what my readers think of this “minor” institutional reform idea.

PS George Selgin would of course say that we should just get rid of central banks all together and Scott Sumner would say why not just implement NGDP futures? I would not argue with George and Scott, but for now we just want people to start thinking serious about monetary policy. And there is of course no conflict between a Hansonian monetary system and Scott’s ideas (which on it own could be seen as a privatisation strategy)

PPS In Hanson’s Futarchy paper he in fact briefly discusses monetary policy and decision markets.

Prediction markets and government budget forecasts

Recently I have had a couple of posts (here and here) on biases in the forecasts of policy makers and why central banks and governments should use prediction markets to do forecasting instead of relying on in-house forecasts that might or might not be biased due to for example political pressures.

Anybody who have studied the forecasts of government agencies are well aware of the notorious biases of such forecasts.  Jeffrey Frankel in a recent paper “Over-Optimism in Official Budget Agencies’ Forecasts” documents strong biases in government growth and budget forecasts. Here is the abstract:

“The paper studies forecasts of real growth rates and budget balances made by official government agencies among 33 countries. In general, the forecasts are found: (i) to have a positive average bias, (ii) to be more biased in booms, (iii) to be even more biased at the 3-year horizon than at shorter horizons. This over-optimism in official forecasts can help explain excessive budget deficits, especially the failure to run surpluses during periods of high output: if a boom is forecasted to last indefinitely, retrenchment is treated as unnecessary. Many believe that better fiscal policy can be obtained by means of rules such as ceilings for the deficit or, better yet, the structural deficit. But we also find: (iv) countries subject to a budget rule, in the form of euroland’s Stability and Growth Path, make official forecasts of growth and budget deficits that are even more biased and more correlated with booms than do other countries. This effect may help explain frequent violations of the SGP. One country, Chile, has managed to overcome governments’ tendency to satisfy fiscal targets by wishful thinking rather than by action. As a result of budget institutions created in 2000, Chile’s official forecasts of growth and the budget have not been overly optimistic, even in booms. Unlike many countries in the North, Chile took advantage of the 2002-07 expansion to run budget surpluses, and so was able to ease in the 2008-09 recession.”

Hence, the conclusion from Frankel’s paper is clear: We can simply not trust government forecasts! His solution is to set-up independent budget institutions as in Chile. Sweden and Hungary as in recent years set-up similar Fiscal Policy Councils. Obviously this is much preferable to the politicised forecasts that we see in many countries (and from international institutions such as the EU and the IMF!), but I strongly believe that budget forecasts based on prediction markets would be much better. The easiest thing would be to let the central bank of the country set-up a prediction market for key macroeconomic numbers which are relevant for the conduct of monetary and fiscal policy and then all government institutions would use these numbers in the conduct of policy.

Robin Hanson reaches a similar conclusion.

Central banks should set up prediction markets

I have spend my entire career as an economist doing forecasting – both of macroeconomic numbers and of financial markets. First as a government economist and then later as a financial sector economist. I think I have done quite well, but I also know that I only rarely am able to beat the market “consensus”. If I beat the market 51% of the time then I think I am worth my money. This probably is a surprise to most none-economists, but it is common knowledge to economists that we really can’t beat the markets consistently.

My point is that the “average” forecast of the market often is a better forecast than the forecast of the individual forecaster. Furthermore, I know of no macroeconomic forecaster who has consistently over long periods been better than the “consensus” expectation. If my readers know of any such super forecaster I will be happy to know about them.

I truly believe in the wisdom of the crowd as manifested in free markets. So-called behavioural economists have another view than I have. They think that the “average” is often wrong and that different biases distort market pricing. I agree that the market is far from perfect. In fact market participants are often wrong, but they are not systematically wrong and markets tend to be unbiased. The profit motive after all is the best incentive to ensure objectivity.

Unlike the market where the profit motive rules central banks and governments are not guided by an objective profit motive but rather than by political motives – that might or might not be noble and objective.

It is well known among academic economists and market participants that the forecasts of government institutions are biased. For example Karl Brunner and Allan Meltzer have demonstrated that the IMF consistently are biased in a too optimistic direction in their forecasts.

I remember once talking to a top central banker in a Central and Eastern European central bank about forecasting. He complained to me that he frankly was tired of the research department in the central bank in which he was in the top management. The reason for his dissatisfaction was that the research department in his view was too optimistic that the central bank would be able to fulfil its inflation target in the near term. He on the other hand had the view that monetary policy needed to be tightened so the research department’s forecast was “inconvenient” for him. Said in another way he was basically unhappy that the research department was not biased enough.

Luckily that particular central bank has maintained a relatively objective and unbiased research department, but the example illustrates that central bank forecasts in no are guaranteed to be unbiased. In fact some banks are open about the fact that their forecasts are biased. Hence, today some central bank assumes in their “forecast” that their target (normally an inflation target) is reached within a given period typically in 2-3 years.

When central banks publish forecasts in which they assume the reach their targets within a given timeframe they at the same time have to say how the will be able to reach this target. This has lead some central banks to publish what is called the “interest rate path” – meaning how interest rates should be expected to be changed in the forecasting period to ensure that particular target. This is problematic in many ways. One is that it normally the research department in the central bank making the forecasts, while it is the management in the central bank (for example the FOMC in the Federal Reserve or the MPC in the Bank of England) that makes the decisions on monetary policy. Furthermore, we all know that monetary policy is exactly not about interest rates. Interest rates do not tell us much about whether monetary policy is tight or loose. Any Market Monetarists will tell you that.

Instead of relying on in-house forecasts central banks could consult the market about the outlook for the economy and markets. Scott Sumner has for example argued that monetary policy should be conducted by targeting NGDP futures. I think that is an excellent idea. However, first of all it could be hard to set-up a genuine NGDP futures markets. Second, the experience with inflation linked bonds shows that the prices on these bonds often are distorted by for example lack of liquidity in the particular markets.

I believe that these problems can be solved and I think Scott’s suggestion ideally is the right one. However, there is a more simple solution, which in principle is the same thing, but which would be much less costly and complicated to operate. My suggestion is the central bank simply set-up a prediction market for key macroeconomic variables – including of the variables that the central bank targets (or could target) such as NGDP level and growth, inflation, the price level.

So how do prediction markets work? Prediction markets are basically betting on the outcome of different events – for example presidential elections in the US or macroeconomic data.

Lets say the Federal Reserve organised a prediction market for the nominal GDP level (NGDP). It would organise “bet” on the level of NGDP for every for example for the next decade. Then market participants buy and sell the NGDP “future” for any given year and then the market pricing would tell the Fed what was the market expectation for NGDP at any given time. If market pricing of NGDP was lower than the targeted level of NGDP then monetary policy is too tight and need to be ease and if market expectation for NGDP above the targeted level then monetary policy is too loose. It really pretty simple, but I am convinced it would work.

The experience with prediction markets is quite good and prediction markets have been used to forecast everything from the outcome of elections to how much a movie will bring in at the box office. A clear advantage with prediction markets is that they are quite easy to set-up and run. Furthermore, it has been shown that even relatively small size bets give good and reliable predictions. This mean that if a central bank set up a prediction market then the average citizen in the country could easily participate in the “monetary policy market”.

I hence believe that prediction markets could be a very useful tool for central banks – both as a forecasting tool but also as a communication tool. A truly credible central bank would have no problem relying on market forecasts rather than on internal forecast.

I of course understand that central banks for all kind of reasons would be very reluctant to base monetary policy on market predictions, but imagine that the Federal Reserve had had a prediction market for NGDP (or inflation for that matter) in 2007-8. Then there is no doubt that it would have had a real-time indication of how much monetary conditions had tightened and that likely would caused the Fed into action much earlier than was actually the case. A problem with traditional macroeconomic forecasts is that they take time to do and hence are not available to policy makers before sometime has gone by.

This might all seem a little bit too farfetched but central banks already to some extent rely on market forecasts. Hence, it is normal that central banks do survey of professional forecasters and most central banks use for example futures prices to predict oil prices when they do their inflation forecasts. Using prediction markets would just take this praxis to a new level.

So I challenge central banks that want to strengthen their credibility to introduce prediction markets on key macroeconomic variables including the variables they target and to communicate clearly about the implications for monetary policy of the forecasts from these predictions markets.

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See my earlier comment on prediction markets and monetary policy here.

Update: If you are interested in predictions markets you should have a look at Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias and Chris Masse’s blog Midas Oracle.

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