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What the SNB should have done

I have got a lot of questions about what I think about the Swiss central bank’s (SNB) decision last week to give up its ‘floor’ on EUR/CHF – effectively revaluing the franc by 20% – and I must admit it has been harder to answer than people would think. Not because I in anyway think it was a good decision – I as basically everybody else thinks it was a terrible decision – but because I so far has been unable to understand how what I used to think of as one of the most competent central banks in the world is able to make such an obviously terrible decision.

One thing is that the SNB might have been dissatisfies with how it’s policy was working – and I would agree that the policy in place until last week had some major problems and I will get back to that – but what worries me is that the SNB instead of replacing its 120-rule with something better seems simply to have given up having any monetary policy rule at all.

It is clear that the SNB’s official inflation target (0-2%) really isn’t too important to the SNB. Or at least it is a highly asymmetrical target where the SNB apparently have no problems if inflation (deflation!) undershoots the target on the downside. At least it is hard to think otherwise when the SNB last week effectively decided to revalue the Swiss franc by 20% in a situation where we have deflation in Switzerland.

Try to imagine how this decision was made. One day somebody shows up in the office and says “we are facing continued deflation. That is what the markets, professional forecasters and our own internal forecasts are telling us very clearly. So why not test economic theory – lets implement a massive tightening of monetary conditions and see what will happens”. And what happened? Everybody in the SNB management screamed “Great idea! Lets try it. What can go wrong?”

Yes, I am still deeply puzzled how this happened. Switzerland is not exactly facing hyperinflation – in fact it is not even facing inflation. Rather deflation will now likely to deepen significantly and Switzerland might even fall into recession.

What was wrong with the ‘old’ policy?

When the SNB implemented its policy to put a ‘floor’ under EUR/CHF back in 2011 I was extremely supportive about it because I thought it was a clever and straightforward way to curb deflationary pressures in the Swiss economy coming from the escalating demand for Swiss franc. That said over the past year or so I have become increasingly sceptical about the policy because I think it was only a partial solution and it has become clear to me that the SNB had failed to articulate what it really wanted to achieve with the policy. Unfortunately I didn’t put these concerns into writing – at least not publicly.

Therefore let me now try to explain what I think was wrong with the ‘old’ policy – the 120-floor on EUR/CHF.

At the core of the problem is that the SNB really never made it clear to itself or to the markets what ultimate nominal target it has. Was the SNB targeting the exchange rate, was it targeting a money market interest rate (the key policy rate) or was it targeting inflation? In fact it was trying to do it all.

And we all know that you cannot do that – it is the Tinbergen rule. You cannot have more targets than you have instruments. The SNB only has one instrument – the money base – so it will have to focusing on only one nominal target. The SNB never articulated clearly to the markets, which of the three targets – the exchange, the interest rate or inflation – had priority over the others.

This might work in short periods and it did. As long as the markets thought that the SNB would be willing to lift the EUR/CHF-floor even further (devalue) to hit its 2% inflation target there was no downward (appreciation) pressure on EUR/CHF and here the credibility of the policy clearly helped.

Hence, there is no doubt that the markets used to think that the floor could be moved up – the Swissy could be devalued further – to ensure that Switzerland would not fall into deflation. However, by its actions it has become increasingly clear to the markets that the SNB was not about to lift the floor to fight deflationary pressures. As a consequence the credibility of the floor-policy has increasingly been tested and the SNB has had to intervene heavily in the FX market to “defend” the 120-floor.

A proposal for a credible, rule-based policy that would work

My proposal for a policy that would work for the SNB would be the following:

First, the SNB should make it completely clear what its money policy instrument is and what intermediate and ultimate monetary policy target it has. It is obvious that the core monetary policy instrument is the money base – the SNB’s ability to print money. Second, in a small-open economy particularly when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) it can be useful to use the exchange rate as an intermediate target – a target the central bank uses to hit its ultimate target. This ultimate target could be a NGDP level target, a price level target or an inflation target.

Second, when choosing its intermediate target it better rely on the support of the markets – so the SNB should announce that it will adjust its intermediate target to always hit its ultimate target (for example the inflation target.)

In this regard I think it would make a lot of sense using the exchange rate – for example EUR/CHF or a basket of currencies – as an intermediate and adjustable target. By quasi-pegging EUR/CHF to 120 the SNB left the impression that the FX ‘target’ was the ultimate rather than an intermediate target of monetary policy.

By stating clearly that the exchange rate ‘target’ is only a target implemented to hit the ultimate target – for example 2% inflation – then there would never be any doubt about what the SNB would trying to do with monetary policy.

I think the best way to introduce such an intermediate target would have been to announced that for example the EUR/CHF floor had been increased to for example 130 – to signal monetary policy was too tight at 120 – but also that the SNB would allow EUR/CHF to fluctuate around a +/-10% fluctuation band.

At the same time the SNB should announce that it in the future would use the ‘mid-point’ of the fluctuation band as the de facto ‘instrument’ for implementing monetary policy so to signal that the mid-point could be changed always to hit the ultimate monetary policy target – for example 2% (expected) inflation.

That would mean that if inflation expectations were below 2% then the Swiss franc would tend to depreciate within the fluctuation band as the market (rightly) would expect the SNB to move the mid-point of the band to ensure that it would hit the inflation target.

This would also mean that there would be a perfect ‘ordering’ of targets and instruments. The expectations for inflation relative to the inflation target would both determine the expectations for the development in the exchange and what intermediate target SNB would set for EUR/CHF. This would mean that under normal circumstances where SNB’s regime is credible the market would effectively implement SNB policy through movements in the exchange rate within the fluctuation band.

As a consequence the SNB would rarely have to do anything with the money base. Of course one can of course think of periods where the SNB’s credibility is tested – for example if a spike global risk aversion causes massive inflows into CHF and push the CHF stronger even if inflation expectations are below the inflation target. That said the SNB would never have to give up “defending” CHF against strengthening as the SNB after all has the ability to print all the money it needs to defend the peg.

Of course this is the ability that has been tested recently, but I believe that the appreciation pressure on CHF has been greatly increased by the SNB failure to move up the target in response to the clear undershooting of he inflation target. Hence, the reluctance to respond to deflationary pressures really has undermined the peg.

Had the SNB moved up the EUR/CHF peg to 130 or 140 six months ago then there would not have been the appreciation pressures on the CHF we have seen and the SNB would not have had to expand its balance sheet as much as have been the case.

The ‘regime’ I have outlined above is any many ways similar to Singapore’s monetary regime where the monetary authorities use the exchange rate rather than interest rates to implement monetary policy. In such a regime the central bank allows interest rates to be completely market determined and the central bank would have no policy interest rate.

This would have that clear advantage that there would never be any doubt what target the SNB would be trying to hit and how to hit it. This of course is contrary to the ‘old’ regime where the SNB effectively tried to have both an exchange rate target, an interest rate target and the inflation target. This inherent internal contradiction in the system I believe is the fundamental reason why SNB’s management felt it had to give it up.

Unfortunately the SNB so far has failed to put something else instead of the old regime and we now seem to be in a state of complete monetary policy discretion.

I hope that the SNB soon will realise that monetary policy should be rule-based and transparent. My suggestion above would be such a regime.

Update: I realise that I really should have dedicated this blog post to Irving Fischer, Lars E. O. Svensson, Bennett McCallum, Robert Hetzel and Michael Belongia. Their work on monetary and exchange policy greatly influenced the thinking in the post.

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Tick tock…here comes the Zero Lower Bound again

This week have brought even more confirmation that we are still basically in a deflationary world – particularly in Europe. Hence, inflation numbers for October in a number of European countries published this week confirm that that inflation is declining markedly and that we now very close to outright deflation in a number of countries. Just take the case of the Czech Republic where the so-called monetary policy relevant inflation dropped to 0.1% y/y in October or even worse Sweden where we now have outright deflation – Swedish consumer prices dropped by 0.1% in October compared to a year ago.

And the picture is the same everywhere – even a country like Hungary where inflation notoriously has been above the central bank’s 3% inflation target inflation is now inching dangerously close to zero.

Some might say that there is no reason to worry because the recent drop in inflation is largely driven by supply side factors. I would agree that we shouldn’t really worry about deflation or disinflation if it is driven by a positive supply shocks and central banks would not react to such shocks if they where targeting nominal GDP rather than headline consumer price inflation. In fact I think that we are presently seeing a rather large positive supply shock to the global economy and in that sense the recent drop in inflation is mostly positive. However, the fact is that the underlying trend in European prices is hugely deflationary even if we strip out supply side factors.

Just the fact that euro zone money supply growth have averaged 0-3% in the past five years tells us that there is a fundamental deflationary problem in the euro zone – and in other European countries. The fact is that inflation has been kept up by negative supply shocks in the past five years and in many countries higher indirect taxes have certainly also helped kept consumer price inflation higher than otherwise would have been the case.

So yes supply side factors help drag inflation down across Europe at the moment – however, some of this is due to the effect of earlier negative supply side shocks are “dropping out” of the numbers and because European governments are taking a break from the austerity measures and as a result is no longer increasing indirect taxes to the same extent as in earlier years in the crisis. Hence, what we are no seeing is to a large extent the real inflation picture in Europe and the fact is that Europe to a very large extent is caught in a quasi-deflatonary trap not unlike what we had in Japan for 15 years.

Here comes the Zero Lower Bound

Over the past five years it is not only the ECB that stubbornly has argued that monetary policy was easy, while it in fact was über tight. Other European central banks have failed in a similar manner. I could mention the Polish, the Czech central banks and the Swedish Riksbank. They have all to kept monetary policy too tight – and the result is that in all three countries inflation is now well-below the central bank’s inflation targets. Sweden already is in deflation and deflation might very soon also be the name of the game in the Czech Republic and Poland. It is monetary policy failure my friends!

In the case of Poland and Sweden the central banks have had plenty of room to cut interest rates, but both the Polish central bank and the Swedish Riksbank have been preoccupied with other issues. The Riksbank has been busy talking about macro prudential indicators and the risk of a property market bubble, while the economy has slowed and we now have deflation. In fact the Riksbank has consistently missed its 2% inflation target on the downside for years.

In Poland the central bank for mysteries reasons hiked interest rates in early 2012 and have ever since refused to acknowledged that the Polish economy has been slowing fairly dramatically and that inflation is likely to remain well-below its official 2.5% inflation target. In fact yesterday the Polish central bank published new forecasts for real GDP growth and inflation and the central bank forecasts inflation to stay well-below 2.5% in the next three years and real GDP is forecasted to growth much below potential growth.

If a central bank fails to hit its inflation target blame the central bank and if a central bank forecasts three years of failure to hit the target something is badly wrong. Polish monetary policy remains overly tight according to it own forecasts!

The stubbornly tight monetary stance of the Polish, the Czech and the Swedish central banks over the past couple of years have pushed these countries into a basically deflationary situation. That mean that these central banks now have to ease more than would have been the case had they not preoccupied themselves with property prices, the need for structural reforms and fiscal policy in recent years. However, as interest rates have been cut in all three countries – but too late and too little – we are now inching closer and closer to the Zero Lower Bound on interest rates.

In fact the Czech central bank has been there for some time and the Polish and the Swedish central bank might be there much earlier than policy makers presently realise. If we just get one “normal size” negative shock to the European economy and then the Polish and Swedish will have eventually to cut rates to zero. In fact with Sweden already in deflation one could argue that the Riksbank already should have cut rates to zero.

The Swedish and the Polish central banks are not unique in this sense. Most central banks in the developed world are very close to the ZLB or will get there if we get another negative shock to the global economy. However, most of them seem to be completely unprepared for this. Yes, the Federal Reserve now have a fairly well-defined framework for conducting monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound, but it is still very imperfect. Bank of Japan is probably closer to having a operational framework at the ZLB. For the rest of the central banks you would have to say that they seem clueless about monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound. In fact many central bankers seem to think that you cannot ease monetary policy more when you hit the ZLB. We of course know that is not the case, but few central bankers seem to be able to answer how to conduct monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment.

It is mysteries how central banks in apparently civilised and developed countries after five years of crisis have still not figured out how to combat deflation with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound. It is a mental liquidity trap and it is telling of the serious institutional dysfunctionalities that dominate global central banking that central bankers are so badly prepared for dealing with the present situation.

But it is nonetheless a fact and it is hard not to think that we could be heading for decades of deflation in Europe if something revolutionary does not happen to the way monetary policy is conducted in Europe – not only by the ECB, but also by other central banks in Europe. In that sense the track record of the Swedish Riksbank or the Polish and Czech central banks is not much better than that of the ECB.

We can avoid deflation – it is easy!

Luckily there is a way out of deflation even when interest rates are stuck at zero. Anybody reading the Market Monetarists blogs know this and luckily some central bankers know it as well. BoJ chief Kuroda obviously knows what it takes to take Japan out of deflation and he is working on it. As do Czech central bank chief Miroslav Singer who last week – finally  – moved to use the exchange rate as policy instrument and devalued the Czech kurona by introducing a floor on EUR/CZK of 27. By doing this he copied the actions of the Swiss central bank. So there is hope.

Some central bankers do understand that there might be an Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. You can always avoid deflation. It is insanely easy, but mentally it seems to be a big challenge for central bankers in most countries in the world.

I am pretty optimistic that the Fed’s actions over the past year is taking the US economy out of the crisis. I am optimistic that the Bank of Japan will win the fight against deflation. I am totally convinced that the Swiss central bank is doing the right thing and I am hopeful that Miroslav Singer in the Czech Republic is winning the battle to take the Czech economy out of the deflationary trap. And I am even optimistic that the recent global positive supply shock will help lift global growth.

However, the ECB is still caught in its own calvinist logic and seems unable to realise what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the past failures of the Bank of Japan. The Swedish central bank remains preoccupied with macro prudential stuff and imaginary fears of a property market bubble, while the Swedish economy now caught is in a deflationary state. The Polish central bank continues to forecast that it will fail to meet its own inflation target, while we are inching closer and closer to deflation. I could mention a number of other central banks in the world which seem trapped in the same kind of failed policies.

Ben Bernanke once argued that the Bank of Japan should show Rooseveltian resolve to bring Japan out of the deflationary trap. Unfortunately very few central bankers in the world today are willing to show any resolve at all despite the fact that we at least Europe is sinking deeper and deeper into a deflationary trap.

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Update: Former Riksbank deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson comments on the Swedish deflation. See here.

Did Bennett McCallum run the SNB for the last 20 years?

Which central bank has conducted monetary policy in the best way in the last five years? Among “major” central banks the answer in my view clearly would have to be the SNB – the Swiss central bank.

Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that you should judge a central bank’s performance on it’s ability to deliver nominal stability – for example hitting an nominal GDP level target. However, for an small very open economy like the Swiss it might make sense to look at Nominal Gross Domestic Demand (NGDD).

This is Swiss NGDD over the past 20 years.

NGDD Switzerland

Notice here how fast the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual NGDD level and the trend) closed after the 2008 shock. Already in 2010 NGDD was brought back to the 1993-trend and has since then NGDD has been kept more or less on the 1993-trend path.

Officially the SNB is not targeting NGDD, but rather “price stability” defined as keeping inflation between 0 and 2%. This has been the official policy since 2000, but at least judging from the actually development the policy might as well have been a policy to keep NGDD on a 2-3% growth path. 

Bennett McCallum style monetary policy is the key to success

So why have the SNB been so successful?

My answer is that the SNB – knowingly or unknowingly – has followed Bennett McCallum’s advice on how central banks in small open economies should conduct monetary policy. Bennett has particularly done research that is relevant to understand how the SNB has been conducting monetary policy over the past 20 years.

First, of all Bennett is a pioneer of NGDP targeting and he was recommending NGDP targeting well-before anybody ever heard of Scott Summer or Market Monetarism.  A difference between Market Monetarists and Bennett’s position is that Market Monetarists generally recommend level targeting, while Bennett (generally) has been recommending growth targeting.

Second, Bennett has always forcefully argued that monetary policy is effective in terms of determining NGDP (or NGDD) also when interest rates are at zero and he has done a lot of work on optimal monetary policy rules at the Zero Lower Bound (See for example here). One obvious policy is quantitative easing. This is what Bennett stressed in his early work on NGDP growth targeting.  Hence, the so-called Mccallum rule is defined in terms the central bank controlling the money base to hit a given NGDP growth target. However, for small open economies Bennett has also done very interesting work on the use of the exchange rate as a monetary policy tool when interest rates are close to zero.

I earlier discussed what Bennett has called a MC rule. According to the MC rule the central bank will basically use interest rates as the key monetary policy rule. However, as the policy interest rate gets close to zero the central bank will start giving guidance on the exchange rate to change monetary conditions. In his models Bennett express the policy instrument (“Monetary Conditions”) as a combination of a weighted average of the nominal exchange rate and a monetary policy interest rate.

SNB’s McCallum rule

My position is that basically we can discribe SNB’s monetary policy over the past 20 years based on these two key McCallum insights – NGDP targeting and the use of a combination of interest rates and the exchange rate as the policy instrument.

To illustrate that I have estimated a simple OLS regression model for Swiss interest rates.

It turns out that it is very to easy to model SNB’s reaction function for the last 20 years. Hence, I can explain 85% of the variation in the Swiss 3-month LIBOR rate since 1996 with only two variables – the nominal effective exchange rate (NEER) and the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual level of Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and the trend level of NGDD). Both variables are expressed in natural logarithms (ln).

The graph below shows the actually 3-month LIBOR rate and the estimated rate.

SNB policy rule

As the graph shows the fit is quite good and account well for the ups and down in Swiss interest rates since 1996 (the model also works fairly well for an even longer period). It should be noted that I have done the model for purely illustrative purposes and I have not tested for causality or the stability of the coefficients in the model. However, overall I think the fit is so good that this is a pretty good account of actual Swiss monetary policy in the last 15-20 years.

I think it is especially notable that once interest rates basically hit zero in early 2010 the SNB initially started to intervene in the currency markets to keep the Swiss franc from strengthening and later – in September 2011 – the SNB moved to put a floor under EUR/CHF at 120 so to completely curb the strengthening of Swiss franc beyond that level. As a result the nominal exchange rate effectively has been flat since September 2011 (after an initial 10% devaluation) despite massive inflows to Switzerland in connection with the euro crisis and rate of expansion in the Swiss money supply has accelerated significantly.

Concluding, Swiss monetary policy has very much been conducted in the spirit of Bennett McCallum – the SNB has effectively targeted (the level of) Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and SNB has effectively used the exchange rate instrument to ease monetary conditions with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound.

The result is that the Swiss economy only had a very short period of crisis in 2008-9 and the economy has recovered nicely since then. Unfortunately none of the other major central banks of the world have followed the advice from Bennett McCallum and as a result we are still stuck in crisis in both Europe and the US.

PS I am well-aware that the discuss above is a as-if discussion that this is what the SNB has actually said it was doing, but rather that it might as well been officially have had a McCallum set-up.  

PPS If one really wants to do proper econometric research on Swiss monetary policy I think one should run a VAR model on the 3-month LIBOR rate, the NGDD gap and NEER and all of the variables de-trended with a HP-filter. I will leave that to somebody with econometric skills and time than myself. But I doubt it would change much with the conclusions.

The Chuck Norris effect, Swiss lessons and a (not so) crazy idea

Here is from The Street Light:

“You may recall that in September the Swiss National Bank (SNB) announced that it was going to intervene as necessary in the currency markets to ensure that the Swiss Franc (CHF) stayed above a minimum exchange rate with the euro of 1.20 CHF/EUR. How has that been working out for them?

It turns out that it has been working extremely well. Today the SNB released data on its balance sheet for the end of September. During the month of August the SNB had to spend almost CHF 100 billion to buy foreign currency assets to keep the exchange rate at a reasonable level. But in September — most of which was after the announcement of the exchange rate minimum — the SNB’s foreign currency assets only grew by about CHF 25 billion. Furthermore, this increase in the CHF value of the SNB’s foreign currency assets likely includes substantial capital gains that the SNB reaped on its euro portfolio (which was valued at about €130 bn at the end of September), as the CHF was almost 10% weaker against the euro in September than in August. Given that, it seems likely that the SNB’s purchases of new euro assets in September after the announcement of the exchange rate floor almost completely stopped.”

This is a very strong demonstration of the power of monetary policy when the central bank is credible. This is the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy: You don’t have to print more money to ease monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target. (Nick Rowe and I like this sort of thing…)

And now to the (not so) crazy idea – if the SNB can ease monetary policy by announcing a devaluation why can’t the Federal Reserve and the ECB do it? Obviously some would say that not all central banks in the world can devalue at the same time – but they can. They can easily do it against commodity prices. So lets say that the ECB, the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England and the SNB tomorrow announced a 15% devaluation against commodity prices (for example the CRB index) and that they will defend that one sided “peg” until the nominal GDP level returns to their pre-Great Recession trend levels. Why 15%? Because that is more or less the NGDP “gap” in the euro zone and the US.

The clever reader will notice that this is the coordinated and slightly more sexy version of Lars E. O. Svensson’s fool-proof way to escape deflation and the liquidity trap.

Is a coordinated 15% devaluation of the major currencies of the world (with the exception of RMB) a crazy idea? Yes, it is quite crazy and it could trigger all kind of political discussions, but I am pretty sure it would work and would very fast bring US and European NGDP back towards the pre-crisis trend. And for those who now scream at the screen “How the hell will higher commodity prices help us?” I will just remind you of the crucial difference between demand and supply driven increases in commodity prices. But okay, lets say we don’t want to do that – so lets instead do the following. The same central banks will “devalue” 15% against a composite index for stock prices in the US, the UK, the euro zone and Japan. Ok, I know you are very upset now. How can he suggest that? I am not really suggesting it, but I am arguing that monetary policy can easily work and all this “crazy idea” would actually do the trick and bring back NGDP back on track in both the US and Europe.  But you might have a better idea.

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