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Monetary policy can’t fix all problems

You say that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Reading the Market Monetarist blogs including my own one could easing come to the conclusion that we are the “hammer boys” that scream at any problem out there “NGDP targeting will fix it!” However, nothing can be further from the truth.

Unlike keynesians Market Monetarists do think that monetary policy should be used to “solve” some problems with “market failure”. Rather we believe that monetary policy should avoid creating problems on it own. That is why we want central banks to follow a clearly defined policy rule and as we think recessions as well as bad inflation/deflation (primarily) are results of misguided monetary policies rather than of market failures we don’t think of monetary policy as a hammer.

Rather we believe in Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So monetary policy determines nominal variables – nominal spending/NGDP, nominal wages, the price level, exchange rates and inflation. We also clearly acknowledges that monetary policy can have real impact – in the short-run the Phillips curve is not vertical so monetary policy can push real GDP above the structural level of GDP and reduce unemployment temporarily. But the long-run Phillips curve certainly is vertical. However, unlike Keynesians we do not see a need to “play” this short-term trade off. It is correct that NGDP targeting probably also would be very helpful in a New Keynesian world, however, we are not starting our analysis at some “social welfare function” that needs to be maximized – there is not a Phillips curve trade off on which policy makers should choose some “optimal” combination of inflation and unemployment – as for example John Taylor basically claims. In that sense Market Monetarists certainly have much more faith in the power of the free market than John Talyor (and that might come to a surprise to conservative and libertarian critics of Market Monetarism…).

What we, however, do indeed argue is that if you commit mistakes you fix it yourself and that also goes for central banks. So if a central bank directly or indirectly (through it’s historical actions) has promised to deliver a certain nominal target then it better deliver and if it fails to do so it better correct the mistake as soon as possible. So when the Federal Reserve through its actions during the Great Moderation basically committed itself and “promised” to US households, corporations and institutions etc. that it would deliver 5% NGDP growth year in and year out and then suddenly failed to so in 2008/9 then it committed a policy mistake. It was not a market failure, but rather a failure of monetary policy. That failure the Fed obviously need to undo. So when Market Monetarists have called for the Fed to lift NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend then it is not some kind of vulgar-keynesian we-will-save-you-all policy, but rather it is about the undoing the mistakes of the past. Monetary policy is not about “stimulus”, but about ensuring a stable nominal framework in which economic agents can make their decisions.

Therefore we want monetary policy to be “neutral” and therefore also in a sense we want monetary policy to become invisible. Monetary policy should be conducted in such a way that investors and households make their investment and consumption decisions as if they lived in a Arrow-Debreu world or at least in a world free of monetary distortions. That also means that the purpose of monetary policy is NOT save investors and other that have made the wrong decisions. Monetary policy is and should not be some bail out mechanism.

Furthermore, central banks should not act as lenders-of-last-resort for governments. Governments should fund its deficits in the free markets and if that is not possible then the governments will have to tighten fiscal policy. That should be very clear. However, monetary policy should not be used as a political hammer by central banks to force governments to implement “reforms”. Monetary policy should be neutral – also in regard to the political decision process. Central banks should not solve budget problems, but central banks should not create fiscal pressures by allowing NGDP to drop significantly below the target level. It seems like certain central banks have a hard time separating this two issues.

Monetary policy should not be used to puncture bubbles either. However, some us – for example David Beckworth and myself – do believe that overly easy monetary policy under some circumstances can create bubbles, but here it is again about avoiding creating problems rather about solving problems. Hence, if the central bank just targets a growth path for the NGDP level then the risk of bubbles are greatly reduced and should they anyway emerge then it should not be task of monetary policy to solve that problem.

Monetary policy can not increase productivity in the economy. Of course productivity growth is likely to be higher in an economy with monetary stability and a high degree of predictability than in an economy with an erratic conduct of monetary policy. But other than securing a “neutral” monetary policy the central bank can not and should not do anything else to enhance the general level of wealth and welfare.

So monetary policy and NGDP level targeting are not some hammers to use to solve all kind of actual and perceived problems, but  who really needs a hammer when you got Chuck Norris?

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Marcus Nunes has a related comment, but from a different perspective.

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Selgin’s Monetary Credo – Please Dr. Taylor read it!

Ok, there is no reason to hide it – I love George Selgin or at least his thinking on monetary theory. George of course is the source to go to on Free Banking theory and history (ok, Larry White is also pretty cool…) and he is of course an expert and a true pioneer on nominal income targeting. His work on the so-called Productivity Norm should be standard reading for anybody with the slightest interest in monetary theory. And now George is out with a comment on NGDP targeting. It is primarily a response to John Taylor’s recent critique of NGDP targeting.

Here is Selgin:

“Thus Professor Taylor complains that, “if an inflation shock takes the price level and thus NGDP above the target NGDP path, then the Fed will have to take sharp tightening action which would cause real GDP to fall much more than with inflation targetting.” Now, first of all, while it is apparently sound “Economics One” to begin a chain of reasoning by imagining an “inflation shock,” it is crappy Economics 101 (or pick your own preferred intro class number), because a (positive) P or inflation “shock” must itself be the consequence of an underlying “shock” to either the demand for or the supply of goods. The implications of the “inflation shock” will differ, moreover, according to its underlying cause. If an adverse supply shock is to blame, then the positive “inflation shock” has as its counterpart a negative output shock. If, on the other hand, the “inflation shock” is caused by an increase in aggregate demand, then it will tend to involve an increase in real output. Try it by sketching AS and AD schedules on a paper napkin, and you will see what I mean.”

Damn, I would not like to be on the receiving end of a critique from Dr. Selgin! But he is of course ever so right…inflation is alway and everywhere a monetary phenomenon (as is recessions) and the problem with the economics of John Taylor and other New Keynesians (yes guys, he is a New Keynesian!) is that they see inflation fluctuations as basically non-monetary shocks or at least think that monetary policy should be used to “counteract” non-monetary shocks.

John Taylor and other New Keynesians therefore see monetary policy as responding either with rules (as Taylor prefers) or with discretionary monetary policy to “shocks”. However, fluctuations in nominal GDP, the price level and inflation are monetary phenonoma. Therefore, monetary policy do not need to “respond” to “shocks”. Monetary policy should not create the shocks in the first place and that is the purpose of NGDP targeting. As I have earlier tired to explain – NGDP is not a form of monetary “fine tuning”. It is in fact the direct opposite.

Or say George explains: “We shall have no real progress in monetary policy until monetary economists realize that, although it is true that unsound monetary policy tends to contribute to undesirable and unnecessary fluctuations in prices and output, it does not follow that the soundest conceivable policy is one that eliminates such fluctuations altogether. The goal of monetary policy ought, rather, to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output–that is, departures of output from its full-information level–while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

Any Market Monetarist (in fact anybody with interest in monetary theory and policy) should remember these words. So lets repeat them (in a shorter version) and let us call it Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So one more time – the goal of monetary policy is NOT to fine tune the economic development, but to avoid creating “unnatural” fluctuations in nominal spending and prices.

I have often been critical about the call for “monetary stimulus” from some Market Monetarists as it has lead many to think that we are in favour of activist monetary policies. We are not in favour of activist policies, we are in favour of “Selgin’s monetary credo”!

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See my earlier overview of the Market Monetarist response to John Taylor’s critique of NGDP targeting here.

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Marcus Nunes also has a comment on Selgin as do Scott Sumner.

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