Three simple changes to the Fed’s policy framework

Frankly speaking I don’t feel like commenting much on the FOMC’s decision today to keep the Fed fund target unchanged – it was as expected, but sadly it is very clear that the Fed has not given up the 1970s style focus on the Phillips curve and on the US labour market rather than focusing on monetary and market indicators. That is just plain depressing.

Anyway, I would rather focus on the policy framework rather than on today’s decision because at the core of why the Fed consistently seems to fail on monetary policy is the weaknesses in the monetary policy framework.

I here will suggest three simple changes in the Fed’s policy framework, which I believe would dramatically improve the quality of US monetary policy.

  1. Introduce a 4% Nominal GDP level target. The focus should be on the expected NGDP level in 18-24 month. A 4% NGDP target would over the medium term also ensure price stability and  “maximum employment”. No other targets are needed.
  2. The Fed should give up doing forecasting on its own. Instead three sources for NGDP expectations should be used: 1) The Fed set-up a prediction market for NGDP in 12 and 24 months. 2) Survey of professional forecasters’ NGDP expectations. 3) The Fed should set-up financial market based models for NGDP expectations.
  3. Give up interest rate targeting (the horrible “dot” forceasts from the FOMC members) and instead use the money base as the monetary policy framework. At each FOMC meeting the FOMC should announce the permanent yearly growth rate of the money base. The money base growth rate should be set to hit the Fed’s 4% NGDP level target. Interest rates should be completely market determined. The Fed should commit itself to only referring to the expected level for NGDP in 18-24 months compared to the targeted level when announcing the money base growth rate. Nothing else should be important for monetary policy.

This would have a number of positive consequences.

First, the policy would be completely rule based contrary to today’s discretion policy.

Second, the policy would be completely transparent and in reality the market would be doing most of the lifting in terms of implementing the NGDP target.

Third, there would never be a Zero-Lower-Bound problem. With money base control monetary policy can always be eased also if interest rates are at the ZLB.

Forth, all the silly talk about bubbles, moral hazard and irrational investors in the stock markets would come to an end. Please stop all the macro prudential nonsense right now. The Fed will never ever be able to spot bubbles and should not try to do it.

Fifth,the Fed would stop reacting to supply shocks (positive and negative) and finally six the FOMC could essentially be replaced by a computer as long ago suggested by Milton Friedman.

Will this ever happen? No, there is of course no chance that this will ever happen because that would mean that the FOMC members would have to give up the believe in their own super human abilities and the FOMC would have to give up its discretionary powers. So I guess we might as well prepare ourself for a US recession later this year. It seems incredible, but right now it seems like Janet Yellen’s Fed has repeated the Mistakes of ’37.

PS What I here have suggested is essentially a forward-looking McCallum rule.


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A horrible start to the year

It has been a horrible start to the year – a sharp escalation of geopolitical tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have sent shock waves through the global stock markets today. In China trading was suspended as stocks fell 7% and we have also seen sharp sell-offs in the European stock markets today.

To makes things worse the latest news for the US economy is far from uplifting. Hence, ISM for December fell to 48.2 from 48.6 in November indicating a contraction in the US manufactoring sector.

My good friend Michael Darda – Chief Economist at MKM Partners – makes this interesting observation:

The ISM Manufacturing Index came in at 48.2 in December, the second consecutive month of contraction. The ISM New Orders Index also came in below 50 for the second consecutive month, suggesting ongoing weakness in S&P earnings growth and capital spending trends. Although it is not unusual for the ISM Index to fall below the 50 threshold during an economic expansion, it is unusual for the Fed to hike rates/tighten monetary policy with the ISM Index below 50. Going back to 1948, we count only six instances when the Fed hiked rates with the ISM Index below 50: five of those episodes were associated with a recession occurring between one and six months later.

So is the US facing a recession? I don’t know, but if the Federal Reserve insists on continuing to hike interest rates through 2016 and if we on top of that get a negative supply shock in the form of rising oil prices on the back rising geopolitical tensions in the Middle East then I certainly would think that we could move close to a US recession in 2016.

But that need not to happen if the Federal Reserve acknowledges that US monetary conditions are already tight rather than easy and hopefully cooler heads will also prevail in the Middle East.

Recession time for Russia – the ultra wonkish version

I have long been a proponent of what I have called the Export Price Norm (EPN). The idea with EPN is that commodity exporting countries can ensure stable nominal spending growth by pegging their currency to either the price of the country’s main export good or to a basket of the export product and a foreign currency.

The case of Russia is illustrative. Hence, one could imagine that the Russian central bank (CBR) implemented a variation of EPN by including oil prices in the basket of euros and dollars, which the CBR has been “shadowing” in recent years. I believe that this in general would lead to a stabilisation of nominal GDP growth in Russia.

The graph below, I believe, illustrates this well.

EPN Russia

We see that over the past 10 years there has been a very high and stable correlation between Russian NGDP growth and (the growth of) the price of oil measured in roubles. As the oil price in roubles seems to lead NGDP growth by 1-2 quarters it is clear that the CBR would have been able to stabilize NGDP growth by managing the rouble in such a way to ‘offset’ positive and negative shocks to the oil price. That of course would have happened “automatically” if the CBR had included the oil price in it’s EUR-USD basket – or alternatively allowed the rouble to float freely and communicated that it would allow the rouble to appreciate or depreciate to offset shocks to the oil price to ensure stable nominal spending growth in the Russian economy.

Nothing surprising about the slowdown in Russian growth

In the last couple of the years the Russian economy has slowed considerably. This I believe is due to the fact that the CBR effectively has been tightening the monetary conditions by keeping the rouble too strong relative to the development in oil prices.

Since early 2011 the oil price (in US dollars) has been declining moderately. This effectively has meant that the currency inflow into Russia has been slowing and not surprisingly this has put downward pressure on the rouble. This should be welcomed news, but the CBR has nonetheless kept monetary conditions too tight by not allowing a large enough depreciation of the rouble to fully offset the oil price shock.

As a result nominal GDP growth has slowed quite significantly and as prices and wages are sticky in Russia (as everywhere else) this has also led to a slowdown in Russian real GDP growth.

Why the EPN ‘prediction’ might be wrong this time around

However, things have been changing over the past year. So while the oil price has continued to “stagnate” the rouble has weakened significantly over the past year – as has been the case for most other Emerging Markets currencies in the world.

Hence, as the drop in the value of the rouble has been significantly larger than the change in the oil price (in USD) the oil price measured in roubles has increased somewhat.

As the graph above shows this de facto monetary easing has already started lifting NGDP growth and given the historical relationship between the oil price measured in rouble and NGDP growth then one should expect NGDP growth to pick up from well-below 10% to 13-14% y/y.

However, this “prediction” strictly based on the Export Price Norm is likely to be far too optimistic. The reason is that the Export Price Norm only ensures nominal stability if all shocks come from the export price – in the case of Russia from oil price shocks.

Historically it has been a reasonable assumption that nearly all shocks to Russian aggregate demand are shocks to the oil price (remember in the case of Russia an oil price shock is a demand shock and not a supply shock). This is why we have such a good fit in the graph above.

But over the past year the Russian economy has been hit by another external shock and a lot of the outflows from Russia has been driven by other factors than oil prices. Hence, the general negative Emerging Markets sentiment over the past year has undoubtedly own its own contributed to the currency outflow.

Furthermore, and more importantly the sharply increased geo-political tensions in relationship to Putin’s military intervention on the peninsula of Crimea has clearly shocked foreign investors who are now dumping Russian assets on large scale. Just Monday this week the Russian stock market fell in excess of 10% and some of the major bank stocks lost 20% of their value on a single day.

In response to this massive outflow the Russian central bank – foolishly in my view – hiked its key policy rate by 150bp and intervened heavily in the currency market to prop up the rouble on Monday. Some commentators have suggested that the CBR might have spent more than USD 10bn of the foreign currency reserve just on Monday. Thereby inflicting greater harm to the Russian economy than any of the planned sanctions by EU and the US against Russia.

By definition a drop in foreign currency reserve translates directly into a contraction in the money base combined with the CBR’s rate hike we this week has seen a very significant tightening of monetary conditions in Russia – something which is likely to send the Russian economy into recession (understood as one or two quarters of negative real GDP growth).

This in my view illustrates a weakness in the very strict form of an Export Price Norm. If the central bank pegs the currency directly to the export price – for example oil prices in the case of Russia – then other negative external shocks – would effectively be monetary tightening.

CBR should implement a 40-40-20 basket with an adjustable +/-15% fluctuation band

Given this weakness in the strict form of the EPN I believe it would be better for the Russian central bank to implement a less strict variation of EPN.

The most obvious solution would be to include oil prices in the CBR’s present operational basket. Overall I think a basket of 40% euros, 40% dollars and 20% oil prices would be a suitable policy basket for the central bank. Furthermore, the CBR should allow for a +/-15% fluctuation band around this policy basket.

The reason I stress that it should be a policy basket is that the ultimate target of the CBR should not be that basket but rather to achieve a stable growth rate of nominal spending in the Russian economy – for example 8-10% NGDP growth.

I believe that under most circumstances the CBR could maintain composition of the policy basket and maintain the fluctuation band unchanged and that would to a large degree ensure nominal stability without changing the basket or the “parity” for this basket and long as the CBR communicates clearly that the purpose of this policy is to ensure nominal growth stability. Then the market would take care of the rest.

Unfortunately Putin’s Russia has much bigger (self-inflicted) problems than monetary policy these days…


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Scott is right: Recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon – just look at QRPI

Scott Sumner has a couple of fascinating posts on recessions on his blog (see here and here).

Scott argues strongly that recessions are a result of nominal shocks rather than real shocks. Scott uses an innovative measure to identify US recessions since 1948. Scott claims that the US economy can be said to be in recession if the unemployment rate increases by 0.6% or more over a 12 months period. That gives 11 recessions since 1948 in the US.

I have compared the timing of these recessions with my measure of “demand inflation” based on my Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). If Scott is right that nominal shocks are the key (the only?) driver of recessions then there should be a high correlation between demand inflation and recessions.

The correlation between the two measures is remarkably strong. Hence, if we define a negative nominal shock as a drop in demand inflation below 0% then we have had 7 negative nominal shocks since 1948 in the US. They all coincide with the Sumner-recessions – both in timing and length.

The only four of Scott’s recessions not “captured” by the QRPI development are the recessions in 1970s and the 1980s where demand inflation (and headline inflation) was very high. Furthermore, it should be noted that in two out of four “unexplained” recessions demand inflation nonetheless dropped significantly – also indicating a negative nominal shocks. This basically means that 9 out of 11 recessions can be explained as being a result of nominal shocks rather than real shocks.

Hence, the evidence is very strong that if demand inflation drops below zero then the US economy will very likely enter into recession.

So yes, Scott is certainly right – recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon! (at least in 80%  of the time). So if the Fed want to avoid recessions then it should pursuit a target for 2% growth path for QRPI or a 5% growth path for NGDP!

”Recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomena”

At the core of Market Monetarist thinking, as in traditional monetarism, is the maxim that “money matters”. Hence, Market Monetarists share the view that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. However, it should also be noted that the focus of Market Monetarists has not been as much on inflation (risks) as on the cause of recession, as the starting point for the school has been the outbreak of the Great Recession.

Market Monetarists generally describe recessions within a Monetary Disequilibrium Theory framework in line with what has been outline by orthodox monetarists such as Leland Yeager and Clark Warburton. David Laidler has also been important in shaping the views of Market Monetarists (particularly Nick Rowe) on the causes of recessions and the general monetary transmission mechanism.

The starting point in monetary analysis is that money is a unique good. Here is how Nick Rowe describes that unique good.

“If there are n goods, including one called “money”, we do not have one big market where all n goods are traded with n excess demands whose values must sum to zero. We might call that good “money”, but it wouldn’t be money. It might be the medium of account, with a price set at one; but it is not the medium of exchange. All goods are means of payment in a world where all goods can be traded against all goods in one big centralised market. You can pay for anything with anything. In a monetary exchange economy, with n goods including money, there are n-1 markets. In each of those markets, there are two goods traded. Money is traded against one of the non-money goods.”

From this also comes the Market Monetarist theory of recessions. Rowe continues:

“Each market has two excess demands. The value of the excess demand (supply) for the non-money good must equal the excess supply (demand) for money in that market. That’s true for each individual (assuming no fat fingers) and must be true when we sum across individuals in a particular market. Summing across all n-1 markets, the sum of the values of the n-1 excess supplies of the non-money goods must equal the sum of the n-1 excess demands for money.”

Said in another way, recession is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the same way as inflation is. Rowe again:

“Monetary Disequilibrium Theory says that a general glut of newly produced goods can only be matched by an excess demand for money.”

This also means that as long as the monetary authorities ensure that any increase in money demand is matched one to one by an increase in the money supply nominal GDP will remain stable (Market Monetarists obviously does not say that economic activity cannot drop as a result of a bad harvest or an earthquake, but such “events” does not create a general glut of goods and labour). This view is at the core of Market Monetarist’s recommendations on the conduct of monetary policy.

Obviously, if all prices and wages were fully flexible, then any imbalance between money supply and money demand would be corrected by immediate changes prices and wages. However, Market Monetarists acknowledge, as New Keynesians do, that prices and wages are sticky.

PS I inspired Nick Rowe to do a post on ”Recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomena”. Now I am stealing it back. Nick, I hope you can forgive me.

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