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.


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.


NGDP targeting would have prevented the Asian crisis

I have written a bit about boom, bust and bubbles recently. Not because I think we are heading for a new bubble – I think we are far from that – but because I am trying to explain why bubbles emerge and what role monetary policy plays in these bubbles. Furthermore, I have tried to demonstrate that my decomposition of inflation between supply inflation and demand inflation based on an Quasi-Real Price Index is useful in spotting bubbles and as a guide for monetary policy.

For the fun of it I have tried to look at what role “relative inflation” played in the run up to the Asian crisis in 1997. We can define “relative inflation” as situation where headline inflation is kept down by a positive supply shock (supply deflation), which “allow” the monetary authorities to pursue a easy monetary policies that spurs demand inflation.

Thailand was the first country to be hit by the crisis in 1997 where the country was forced to give up it’s fixed exchange rate policy. As the graph below shows the risks of boom-bust would have been clearly visible if one had observed the relative inflation in Thailand in the years just prior to the crisis.

When Prem Tinsulanonda became Thai Prime Minister in 1980 he started to implement economic reforms and most importantly he opened the Thai economy to trade and investments. That undoubtedly had a positive effect on the supply side of the Thai economy. This is quite visible in the decomposition of the inflation. From around 1987 to 1995 Thailand experience very significant supply deflation. Hence, if the Thai central bank had pursued a nominal income target or a Selgin style productivity norm then inflation would have been significantly lower than was the case. Thailand, however, had a fixed exchange rate policy and that meant that the supply deflation was “counteracted” by a significant increase in demand inflation in the 10 years prior to the crisis in 1997.

In my view this overly loose monetary policy was at the core of the Thai boom, but why did investors not react to the strongly inflationary pressures earlier? As I have argued earlier loose monetary policy on its own is probably not enough to create bubbles and other factors need to be in play as well – most notably the moral hazard.

Few people remember it today, but the Thai devaluation in 1997 was not completely unexpected. In fact in the years ahead of the ’97-devaluation there had been considerably worries expressed by international investors about the bubble signs in the Thai economy. However, the majority of investors decided – rightly or wrongly – ignore or downplay these risks and that might be due to moral hazard. Robert Hetzel has suggested that the US bailout of Mexico after the so-called Tequila crisis of 1994 might have convinced investors that the US and the IMF would come to the rescue of key US allies if they where to get into economic troubles. Thailand then and now undoubtedly is a key US ally in South East Asia.

What comes after the bust?

After boom comes bust it is said, but does that also mean that a country that have experience a bubble will have to go through years of misery as a result of this? I am certainly not an Austrian in that regard. Rather in my view there is a natural adjustment when a bubble bursts, as was the case in Thailand in 1997. However, if the central bank allow monetary conditions to be tightened as the crisis plays out that will undoubtedly worsen the crisis and lead to a forced and unnecessarily debt-deflation – what Hayek called a secondary deflation. In the case of Thailand the fixed exchange rate regime was given up and that eventually lead to a loosening of monetary conditions that pulled the

NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and ensures a more swift recovery

One thing is how to react to the bubble bursting – another thing is, however, to avoid the bubble in the first place. Market Monetarists in favour NGDP level targeting and at the moment Market Monetarists are often seen to be in favour of easier monetary policy (at least for the US and the euro zone). However, what would have happened if Thailand had had a NGDP level-targeting regime in place when the bubble started to get out of hand in 1988 instead of the fixed exchange rate regime?

The graph below illustrates this. I have assumed that the Thailand central bank had targeted a NGDP growth path level of 10% (5% inflation + 5% RGDP growth). This was more or less the NGDP growth in from 1980 to 1987. The graph shows that the actually NGDP level increased well above the “target” in 1988-1989. Under a NGDP target rule the Thai central bank would have tightened monetary policy significantly in 1988, but given the fixed exchange rate policy the central bank did not curb the “automatic” monetary easing that followed from the combination of the pegged exchange rate policy and the positive supply shocks.

The graph also show that had the NGDP target been in place when the crisis hit then NGDP would have been allowed to drop more or less in line with what we actually saw. Since 2001-2 Thai NGDP has been more or less back to the pre-crisis NGDP trend. In that sense one can say that the Thai monetary policy response to the crisis was better than was the case in the US and the euro zone after 2008 – NGDP never dropped below the pre-boom trend. That said, the bubble had been rather extreme with the NGDP level rising to more than 40% above the assumed “target” in 1996 and as a result the “necessary” NGDP was very large. That said, the NGDP “gap” would never have become this large if there had been a NGDP target in place to begin with.

My conclusion is that NGDP targeting is not a policy only for crisis, but it is certainly also a policy that significantly reduces the risk of bubbles. So when some argue that NGDP targeting increases the risks of bubble the answer from Market Monetarists must be that we likely would not have seen a Thai boom-bust if the Thai central bank had had NGDP target in the 1990s.

No balance sheet recession in Thailand – despite a massive bubble

It is often being argued that the global economy is heading for a “New Normal” – a period of low trend-growth – caused by a “balance sheet” recession as the world goes through a necessary deleveraging. I am very sceptical about this and have commented on it before and I think that Thai experience shows pretty clearly that we a long-term balance sheet recession will have to follow after a bubble comes to an end. Hence, even though we saw significant demand deflation in Thailand after the bubble busted NGDP never fell below the pre-boom NGDP trend. This is pretty remarkable when the situation is compared to what we saw in Europe and the US in 2008-9 where NGDP was allowed to drop well below the early trend and in that regard it should be noted that Thai boom was far more extreme that was the case in the US or Europe for that matter.

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