Answering questions on “Quora” about Market Monetarism

I recently signed up for Quora. According to Wikipedia Quora “is a question-and-answer website created, edited and organized by its community of users.”

I am not a frequent user of Quora but drop by from time to time and tonight I ran into this question:

Why do some market monetarists advocate fiscal austerity?

That one I obviously had to answer and here it is:

The short answer is the Market Monetarists do not advocate fiscal austerity. What MM’ers are arguing is that monetary dominates fiscal policy. Hence, IF fiscal policy is tightened then it will not necessarily have an negative impact on aggregate demand – or nominal GDP – if the central bank for examples targets inflation or the nominal GDP level. This is known as the Sumner Critique.

The view that monetary policy dominates fiscal policy in the determination of nominal spending in the economy makes Market Monetarists less fearful fiscal austerity than for example keynesians. Furthermore, Market Monetarists are highly skeptical about discretionary policies – both monetary and fiscal – and that leads Market Montarists to advocate rule based fiscal and monetary policy.

In addition most of the leader Market Monetarists thinkers are libertarian or conservative and as such highly skeptical about a large public sector and as a result many Market Monetarists therefore would welcome cuts in public spending. That, however, is not at the core of Market Monetarist thinking.

Finally for most Market Monetarists fiscal austerity is simply about simple arithmetics – in the long run governments cannot spend more money than they bring in. Therefore, for countries that are unable to access the global capital markets – such as Greece – there is no alternative to austerity.

I have written numerous blog posts on these issues on my blog The Market Monetarist. See some of them here:

“Conditionality” is ECB’s term for the Sumner Critique

In New Zealand the Sumner Critique is official policy

Policy coordination, game theory and the Sumner Critique

The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92

The fiscal cliff is not the end of the world

Cato Institute on US military spending and the fiscal cliff

The fiscal cliff is good news

The fiscal cliff and the Bernanke-Evans rule in a simple static IS/LM model

The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well

There is no such thing as fiscal policy

The fiscal cliff is good news

When I started this blog I set out to write about monetary policy issues – primarily from a none-US perspective – and furthermore I am on vacation with my family in Malaysia so writing this blog post goes against everything I should do – however, after listen to five minutes of debate about the ”fiscal cliff” on CNBC tonight I simply have to write this: What is your problem? Why are you so scared about fiscal consolidation? After all this is what the fiscal cliff is – a 4-5% improvement of public finances as share of GDP.

The point is that the US government is running clearly excessive public deficits and the public debt has grown far too large so isn’t fiscal tightening exactly what you need? I think it is and the fiscal cliff ensures that. Yes, I agree tax hikes are unfortunate from a supply side perspective, but cool down a bit – it is going to have only a marginally negative impact on the long-term US growth perspective that the Bush tax cuts expiries. But more importantly the fiscal cliff would mean cuts in US defense spending. The US is spending more on military hardware than any other country in the world. It seems to me that US policy makers have not realized that the Cold War is over. You don’t need to spend 5% of GDP on bombs. In fact I believe that if the entire 4-5% fiscal consolidation were done, as cuts to US defense spending the world would probably be a better place. But that is not my choice – and it is the peace-loving libertarian rather than the economist speaking (here is a humorous take on the sad story of war). What I am saying is that the world is not coming to an end if the US defense budget is cut marginally. Paradoxically US conservatives this time around are against budget consolidation. Sad – but true.

Since September the Federal Reserve has had the Bernanke-Evans rule in place. That means basically means that the Fed will step up monetary easing in response to any increase in unemployment. Hence, if the full fiscal cliff leads to any increase in unemployment the fed will counteract that with monetary easing. So effectively the fiscal cliff means fiscal tightening and monetary easing. This of course would also be the case if the fed was a strict inflation targeting central bank – that directly follows from the Sumner critique.

Fiscal consolidation and monetary easing is this is exactly what the US had in 1990s – the best period for the US economy since WWII. By at that time a Democrat President also had to work with a Republican dominated Congress.

So no, I don’t understand what there is to fear. Lower public spending and easier monetary policy is the right medine for the US economy (yes and please throw in some structural reforms as well). If that is the fiscal cliff please bring it on. It will be good for America and good for the world. And it might even be a more peaceful world.

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PS if you are really concerned about the fiscal cliff just agree on this:

1) Cut US defense spending to 2% of GDP

2) NO tax hikes

3) Commit the fed to bring back NGDP to the pre-crisis trend level through QE

Update: My version (second and third!) version of this post had an incredible amount of typos – sorry for that. I have now cleaned it up a bit.

Update 2: David Glasner also comments on the fiscal issue – David agrees with me in theory, but is more worried about the what the fed will do in the real world. When David is saying something I always listen. David is a real voice of reason – often also of moderation. That said, I strongly believe the Sumner Critique is correct. NGDP is determined by monetary policy and not by fiscal policy – so if the fiscal cliff will lead to a recession the fed will be to blame and not the US politicians (they are to blame for a lot of other things…).

The fiscal cliff and the Bernanke-Evans rule in a simple static IS/LM model

Sometimes simple macroeconomic models can help us understand the world better and even though I am not uncritical about the IS/LM model it nonetheless has some interesting features which from time to time makes it useful for policy analysis (if you are careful).

However, a key problem with the IS/LM model is that the model does not take into account – in its basic textbook form – the central bank’s policy rule. However, it is easy to expand the model to include a monetary policy rule.

I will do exactly that in this post and I will use the Federal Reserve’s new policy rulethe Bernanke-Evans rule – to analysis the impact of the so-called fiscal cliff on a (very!) stylised version of the US economy.

We start out with the two standard equations in the IS/LM model.

The money demand function:

(1) m=p+y-α×r

Where m is the money supply/demand, p is prices and y is real GDP. r is the interest rate and α is a coefficient.

Aggregate demand is defined as follows:

(2) y=g-β×r

Aggregate demand y equals public spending and private sector demand (β×r), which is a function of the interest rate r. β is a coefficient. It is assumed that private demand drops when the interest rate increases.

This is basically all you need in the textbook IS/LM model. However, we also need to define a monetary policy rule to be able to say something about the real world.

I will use a stylised version of the Bernanke-Evans rule based on the latest policy announcement from the Fed’s FOMC. The FOMC at it latest meeting argued that it basically would continue to expand the money base (in the IS/LM the money base and the money supply is the same thing) to hit a certain target for the unemployment rate. That means that we can define a simple Bernanke-Evans rule as follows:

(3) m=λ×U

One can think of U as either the unemployment rate or the deviation of the unemployment rate from the Fed’s unemployment target. λ is a coefficient that tells you how aggressive the fed will increase the money supply (m) if U increases.

We now need to model how the labour market works. We simply assume Okun’s law holds (we could also have used a simple production function):

(4) U=-δ×y

This obviously is very simplified as we totally disregard supply side issues on the labour market. However, we are not interested in using this model for analysis of such factors.

It is easy to solve the model. We get the LM curve from (1), (3) and (4):

LM: r= y×(1+δ×λ)⁄α+(1/α)×p

And we get the IS curve by rearranging (2):

IS: r =(1/β)×g-(1/β)×y

Under normal assumptions about the coefficients in the model the LM curve is upward sloping and the IS curve is downward sloping. This is as in the textbook version.

Note, however, that the slope of the LM does not only depend on the money demand’s interest rate elasticity (α), but also on how aggressive  (λ) the fed will react to an increase in unemployment.

The Sumner Critique applies if λ=∞

The fact that the slope of the LM curve depends on λ is critical. Hence, if the fed is fully committed to its unemployment target and will do everything to fulfill (as the FOMC signaled when it said it would step up QE until it hit its target) then λ equals infinity (∞) .

Obviously, if λ=∞ then the LM curve is vertical – as in the “monetarist” case in the textbook version of the IS/LM model. However, contrary to the “normal” the LM curve we don’t need α to be zero to ensure a vertical LM curve.

Hence, under a strict Bernanke-Evans rule where the fed will not accept any diviation from its unemployment target (λ=∞) the (government) budget multiplier is zero and the so-called Sumner Critique therefore applies: Fiscal policy cannot increase or decrease output (y) or the unemployment (U) as any fiscal “shock” (higher or lower g) will be fully offset by the fed’s actions.

The Bernanke-Evans rule reduces risks from the fiscal cliff

It follows that if the fed actually follows through on it commitment to hit its (still fuzzy) unemployment target then in the simple model outlined above the risk from a negative shock to demand from the so-called fiscal cliff is reduced greatly.

This is good news, but it is also a natural experiment of the Sumner Critique. Imagine that we indeed get a 4% of GDP tightening of fiscal policy next year, but at the same time the fed is 100% committed to hitting it unemployment target (that unemployment should drop) then if unemployment then increases anyway then Scott Sumner (and myself) is wrong – or the fed didn’t do it job well enough. Both are obviously very likely…

I am arguing that I believe the model presented above is the correct model of the US economy. The purpose has rather been to demonstrate the critical importance of a the monetary policy rule even in a standard textbook keynesian model and to demonstrate that fiscal policy is much less important than normally assumed by keynesians if we take the monetary policy rule into account.

“Conditionality” is ECB’s term for the Sumner Critique

Some time ago Scott Sumner did a number of blog posts on fiscal policy and why he believes that the budget multiplier is zero. At the time I was somewhat frustrated that the amount of time Scott was using to focus on an issue that I found quite obvious. However, I now found myself doing exactly the same thing – I can’t let go of the game played by central banks against governments and impact this has on the economic policy mix. This is maybe because I find empirical evidence for the so-called Sumner Critique popping up everywhere.

The Sumner Critique basically says that the central bank can always overrule any impact of expansionary fiscal policy on aggregate demand by tightening monetary policy and if the central bank is targeting for example inflation or nominal GDP then it will do so. Therefore, under inflation targeting or NGDP targeting the budget multiplier will always be zero even if the world is Keynesian.

Last week’s policy announcement from the ECB gives further (quasi) empirical support for the Sumner Critique. Hence, the ECB announced that it would conduct what it calls “Outright Monetary Transactions” (OMT) – that is it would (or rather could) buy euro government bonds.

But see here what the ECB said about the conditions for OMT:

“A necessary condition for Outright Monetary Transactions is strict and effective conditionality attached to an appropriate European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism (EFSF/ESM) programme. Such programmes can take the form of a full EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme or a precautionary programme (Enhanced Conditions Credit Line), provided that they include the possibility of EFSF/ESM primary market purchases. The involvement of the IMF shall also be sought for the design of the country-specific conditionality and the monitoring of such a programme.

The Governing Council will consider Outright Monetary Transactions to the extent that they are warranted from a monetary policy perspective as long as programme conditionality is fully respected, and terminate them once their objectives are achieved or when there is non-compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment or precautionary programme.

Following a thorough assessment, the Governing Council will decide on the start, continuation and suspension of Outright Monetary Transactions in full discretion and acting in accordance with its monetary policy mandate.”

The important term here is “conditionality”. The ECB’s condition for buying government bonds is that the individual euro zone country has a EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme. Such a programme is basically a pledge of a given government to tighten fiscal policy. In other words – the ECB could buy for example Spanish government bonds, but the condition would be that the Spanish government should tighten fiscal policy.

Therefore, what the ECB is doing is basically asking the Spanish government and other euro zone governments to be the “Stackelberg leader”: First you tighten fiscal policy and then we will ease monetary policy.

As a consequence the ECB has basically said that the fiscal multiplier should be zero – the ECB will “neutralize” any impact on aggregate demand of changes in fiscal policy. This is better news than it might sound. Obviously European monetary policy is much too tight in the euro zone and I would have liked to see a lot more action from the ECB. However, one could understand “conditionality” to mean that the ECB will fill the possible hole in aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation in euro zone – monetary policy will be eased in response to fiscal tightening. That is good news.

However, the crucial problem of course is that the euro zone needs higher aggregate demand and therefore I would have been much happier if the ECB had announced a clear plan to increase aggregate demand (or rather nominal GDP) – it did not do that. However, if the ECB at least will try to counteract the possible negative impact on aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation then that is good news. One could of course say that this is a completely natural consequence of the ECB’s inflation targeting regime – if fiscal tightening reduces aggregate demand then the ECB should ease monetary policy to avoid inflation undershooting the inflation targeting.

Concluding, “conditionality” is another term for the Sumner Critique and it is in my view yet another illustration that expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to bring us out of this crisis if central banks is not playing along.

Related posts:

In New Zealand the Sumner Critique is official policy
Policy coordination, game theory and the Sumner Critique
The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

Causality, econometrics and beautiful Saint Pete

I am going to Russia next week. It will be good to be back in wonderful Saint Petersburg. In connection with my trip I have been working on some econometric models for Russia. It is not exactly work that I enjoy and I am deeply skeptical about how much we can learn from econometric studies. That said, econometrics can be useful when doing practical economics – such as trying to forecast Russian growth and inflation.

So I have been working on this model for the Russian economy. The main purpose of the model is to learn about what I would would call the petro-monetary transmission mechanism in the Russian economy. It is my thesis that the primary channel for how oil prices are impacting the Russian economy is through the monetary transmission mechanism rather than through net exports.

Here is my theory in short: The Russian central bank (CBR) dislikes – or at least used to dislike – a freely floating exchange rate. Therefore the CBR will intervene to keep the ruble stable. These days the CBR manages the ruble within a band against a basket of the US dollar and the euro. Today the ruble is much more freely floating than it used to be, but nonetheless the ruble is still tightly managed and the ruble is certainly not a freely floating currency.

So why is that important for my econometric models for Russia? Well, it is important because it means quite a bit to the causality I assume in the model. Lets look at two examples. One where the ruble is completely pegged against another currency or a basket of currencies and another example where the ruble is freely floating and the central bank for example targets inflation or nominal GDP.

Pegged exchange rate: Causality runs from oil to money supply and NGDP 

If we are in a pegged exchange rate regime and the price of oil increases by lets say 10% then the ruble will tend to strengthen as currency inflows increase. However, with a fully pegged exchange rate the CBR will intervene to keep the ruble pegged. In other words the central bank will sell ruble and buy foreign currency and thereby increase the currency reserve and the money supply (to be totally correct the money base). Remembering that MV=PY so an increase in the money supply (M) will increase nominal GDP (PY) and this likely will also increase real GDP at least in the short run as prices and wages are sticky.

So in a pegged exchange rate set-up causality runs from higher oil prices to higher money supply growth and then on to nominal GDP and real GDP and then likely also higher inflation. Furthermore, if the economic agents are forward-looking they will realize this and as they know higher oil prices will mean higher inflation they will reduce money demand pushing up money velocity (V) which in itself will push up NGDP and RGDP (and prices).

Now lets look at the case where we assume a freely floating ruble.

Floating ruble: Oil prices and monetary policy will be disconnected

If we assume that the CBR introduce an inflation target and let the ruble float completely freely and convinces the markets that it don’t care about the level of the ruble then the causality in or model of the Russian economy changes completely.

Now imagine that oil prices rise by 10%. The ruble will tend to strengthen and as the CBR is not intervening in the FX market the ruble will in fact be allow to strengthen. What will that mean for nominal GDP? Nothing – the CBR is targeting inflation so if high oil prices is pushing up aggregate demand in the economy the central bank will counteract that by reducing the money supply so to keep aggregate demand “on track” and thereby ensuring that the central bank hits its inflation target. This is really a version of the Sumner Critique. While the Sumner Critique says that increased government spending will not increase aggregate demand under inflation targeting we are here dealing with a situation, where increased Russian net exports will not increase aggregate demand as the central bank will counteract it by tightening monetary policy. The export multiplier is zero under a floating exchange rate regime with inflation targeting.

Of course if the market participants realize this then the ruble should strengthen even more. Therefore, with a truly freely floating ruble the correlation between the exchange rate and the oil price will be very high. However, the correlation between the oil price and nominal GDP will be very low and nominal GDP will be fully determined by the central bank’s target. This is pretty much similar to Australian monetary policy. In Australia – another commodity exporter – the central bank allows the Aussie dollar to strengthen when commodity prices increases. In fact in Australia there is basically a one-to-one relationship between commodity prices and the Aussie dollar. A 1% increase in commodity prices more or less leads to a 1% strengthening of Aussie dollar – as if the currency was in fact pegged to the commodity price (what Jeff Frankel calls PEP).

Therefore with a truly floating exchange rate there would be little correlation between oil prices and nominal GDP and inflation, but a very strong correlation between oil prices and the currency. This of course is completely the opposite of the pegged exchange rate case, where there is a strong correlation between oil prices and therefore the money supply and nominal GDP.

Do I have to forget about econometrics? Not necessarily

So what do that mean for my little econometric exercise on the Russian economy? Well, basically it means that I have to be extremely careful when I interpret the econometric output. The models I have been playing around with I have estimated from 2000 and until today. I have done what is called Structural VAR analysis (with a lot of help from a clever colleague who knows econometrics much better than me). Some of the results we get are surely interesting, however, we got one major problem and that is that during the 12 years we are looking Russian monetary policy has changed significantly.

In the early part of the estimation period the Russian central bank basically maintained a quasi-pegged exchange for the ruble against the dollar. Later, however, the CBR started to manage the ruble against a basket of dollars and euros and at the same time the CBR would “adjust” the ruble rate to hit changing nominal targets – for example an inflation target. The CBR have had multiple and sometimes inconsistent targets during the past decade. Furthermore, the CBR has moved gradually in the direction of a more freely floating ruble by allowing for a wider “fluctuation band” around the euro-dollar basket.

So basically we would expect that causality in the Russian economy in 2000 would be pretty much as described in the pegged exchange rate case, while it today should be closer to the floating exchange rate case. That of course means that we should not expect the causality in our model to be stable causal structure. Econometricians hate that – to me it is just a fact of life or as Ludwig von Mises used to say “there are no constants in economics” (I am paraphrasing von Mises from my memory). This of course is also know as the Lucas Critique. Some would of course argue that we could take this into account when we do our econometric work, but regime changes do not necessarily happen from day to day. Often regime change is gradual, which makes it impossible to really to take into account in econometric studies.

And this is one of my problems with econometrics – or rather with how econometric studies often are conducted. They do not take into account regime change and therefore do not take into account expectations. As a result well-known correlations tend to breakdown. The best example is of course the disappearance of the Phillips curve relationship in the 1970s and 1980s. Another example is the breakdown of the causal relationship between money supply growth and inflation in 1990s.

So what do I do? Should I give up on my little econometric venture? No, I don’t think so. Econometrics can clearly be useful in determining the magnitude and importance of different shocks in the economy and surely some of our econometric results on the Russian economy seems to be pretty robust. For example over the estimation period it seems like a 10% increase in the oil prices have increased the M2 and nominal GDP by around 2%. That is nice to know and is useful information when you want to do forecasting on the Russian economy. But it would be completely naive to expect this relationship to be constant over time. Rather the Russian central bank is clearly moving in the direction of a more and more freely floating ruble so we should expect the correlation between oil prices one the one hand and M2 and NGDP on the other hand to decrease going forward.

Concluding, econometrics can be useful in doing “practical” economics like macroeconomic forecasting, but one should never forget to do the homework on the institutional structures of the economy and one should never ever forget about the importance of expectations. Economic reasoning is much more important than any statistical results.

Related posts:
Next stop Moscow
International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis
Fear-of-floating, misallocation and the law of comparative advantages
PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure
Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Policy coordination, game theory and the Sumner Critique

Here is Alan Blinder in a paper – “Issues in the Coordination of Monetary and Fiscal Policy” – from 1982:

“Consider the problem of designing a car in which student drivers will be taught to drive. The car will have two steering wheels and two sets of brakes. One way to achieve “coordination” is to design the car so that one set of controls – the teacher’s – can always override the other. And it may seem obvious that this is the correct thing to do in this case.”

The student driver obviously is fiscal policy, while the teacher is monetary policy. If the student (fiscal policy) try to take the car (the economy) in one direction the teacher (monetary policy) can always step in and overrule him. This is of course the Sumner Critique – monetary policy will always have the final say on the level of aggregate demand/nominal GDP and hence the fiscal multiplier is zero if the central bank for example targets the nominal GDP level or inflation and that is even the case if the world is assumed to be Keynesian in nature.

However, even though monetary policy has the final say that does not mean that monetary policy will conducted in the right fashion or as Blinder express it:

“But now suppose that we do not know in advance who will sit in which seat. Or what if the teacher, while a superior driver, has terrible eyesight? Under these conditions it is no longer obvious that we want one set of controls to be able to ovemde the other. Reasoning that a stalemate may be better than a violent collision, we may decide that it is best to design the car with two sets of competing controls which can partially offset one another.”

Blinder here raises an interesting question – what if the central bank does not conduct monetary policy in a proper fashion wouldn’t it then be better to give the fiscal authority the possibility to try it’s luck. Blinder is of course right there is no guarantee that the central bank will do a good job – if that was the case then we would not be in this crisis. However, does that mean that fiscal policy can “take over”? Obviously not – even a bad central bank can overrule the fiscal authority when it comes to aggregate demand. The ECB is doing that on a daily basis.

Anyway, I really just wanted to remind my readers of Blinder’s paper. It is really not directly about the Sumner Critique, but rather Alan Blinder is discussing coordination between monetary policy and fiscal policy from a game theoretical perspective. Even though Blinder obviously as a lot more faith in “government design” than I have the paper is quite interesting in terms of the games central banks an governments play against (and sometimes with) each other. I find Blinder’s discussion highly relevant for particularly the game being played in the euro zone today between the ECB and European governments about monetary easing versus fiscal consolidation.

William Nordhaus in 1994 wrote a similar paper to Blinder’s about “Policy Games: Coordination and Independence in Monetary and Fiscal Policies”Nordhaus’ paper is equally relevant to today’s discussion.

It seems like the game theoretical literature about monetary-fiscal policy coordination has somewhat disappeared today, but to me these topics are more relevant that ever. If my readers are aware of any newer literature on this topic I would be very happy to hear about it.

PS the literature apparently not completely dead – here is a 2010 dissertation on the same topic by Helton Saulo B. Dos Santos. I have not read it, but it looks quite interesting.

Update: Nick Rowe has kindly reminded me that he and Simon Power actually have written a paper on the same topic back in 1998. Nick recently did a blog post about his paper. Nick interesting enough reaches the same conclusion as I do that in a Stackelberg setting where the government sets the budget deficit first and the central bank follows and determine NGDP we get a outcome similar to the Sumner Critique. Again this is not due to monetarist assumptions about the structure the economy (the LM curve does not have to be vertical), but rather due to the game theoretical setting.

The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

One of the hottest political topics in the US today is the so-called fiscal cliff. The fiscal cliff is the expected significant fiscal tightening, which will kick in January 2013 when the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 expires – unless a deal is struck to postpone the tightening. The fiscal cliff is estimated to amount to 4% of GDP – hence a very substantial fiscal tightening.

So how much should we worry about the fiscal cliff? Keynesians claim that we should worry a lot. The Market Monetarist would one the other hand argue that the impact of the fiscal cliff will very much depend on the response of the Federal Reserve to the possible fiscal tightening. If the Fed completely ignores the impact of the fiscal cliff on aggregate demand – if there will be any – then it would be naive to argue that there would be no impact at all on aggregate demand – after all a 4% tightening of fiscal policy in one year is very substantial.

On the other hand if the Federal Reserve had an NGDP target then the impact would likely be minimal as the Fed “automatically” would fill any “hole” in aggregate demand created by the tightening of fiscal policy to keep nominal GDP on track. This of course is the Sumner critique – the fiscal multiplier will be zero under NGDP targeting or inflation targeting for that matter.

Note that I am not making any assumptions about the how the economy works. Even if we assume we are in a Keynesian world, where the “impulse” to aggregate demand from a fiscal tightening would be negative an NGDP targeting regime would ensure that the world would look like a “classical world” (fiscal policy will have no impact on aggregate demand). This by the way would also be the case under inflation targeting – which of course is closer to the actual policy the Fed is conducting.

Said in another we should expect that if fiscal policy indeed would be strongly negative for aggregate demand in the US and push inflation sharply down then the likelihood of more aggressive monetary easing from the Fed would increase and hence sharply reduce any negative effect on aggregate demand (note that nominal GDP is really just another word for aggregate demand – at least according to Market Monetarists like myself). Therefore, we should probably be significantly less worried than some Keynesians seem to be.

Furthermore, it is notable that the US stock market continues rise and inflation expectations have been inching up recently. This is not exactly an indication that the US is facing a sharp drop in aggregate demand in 2013. We can obviously not know why the markets seem so relatively relaxed about the fiscal cliff, but I would think that the reason is that the markets are pricing in a combination of a political compromise that significantly reduces the fiscal tightening in 2013 and also is pricing an increased likelihood of QE3 becoming a reality.

So the conclusion is that Keynesian fears about the scale of the shock to aggregate demand is somewhat overblown as a combination of the Sumner critique and political logrolling will probably reduce the negative shock. We, however, can’t be sure about that so wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to worry about this issue? NGDP level targeting could seriously reduce the worries about fiscal shocks.

Fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

Both in the US and the euro zone calls for scaling back fiscal consolidation have been growing larger and politicians like the French President Hollande and from Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have even demanded fiscal stimulus. To me it is pretty simple – the state of public finances in most euro zone countries and the US is horrible so I fundamentally don’t think that most countries can afford much fiscal stimulus. That said, I also think that the calls for austerity is somewhat hysterical and I find it rather unlikely that the markets would react very negative if the US budget deficit became 1-2 percentage points of GDP larger next year – just look at US treasury yields it is not so that the markets are telling us that the US economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. The markets are often wrong, but government default rarely happens out of the blue.

However, from a public choice perspective we should probably think that the deeper a country falls into recession the more likely it is that the wider public will vote for politicians like Hollande and policy makers are more and more likely to start listening to economists like Paul Krugman. That unfortunately will do very little to ending the crisis. Fiscal stimulus is not the answer to our problems – monetary easing is.

So fiscal conservatives are likely going to face more and more resistance – whether we like it or not. On the other hand if the central bank was operating a credible NGDP level target then fiscal conservatives could argue that negative impact of fiscal consolidation would be met by an easing of monetary policy to keep NGDP on track. Therefore there would be no reasons to worry about fiscal tightening hitting growth and increasing unemployment.

Even better imagine that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would do as much monetary easing needed to bring back NGDP to its pre-crisis trend by for example raising  NGDP by 15% from the present level by the end of 2013. Do you then think anybody would worry about a fiscal tightening of 4% of GDP? I think not.

Therefore, the conclusion is clear to me. Fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP level targeting as it completely would undermine any Keynesian arguments for postponing fiscal consolidation. Furthermore, a commitment to keep NGDP on track would also likely make fiscal consolidation much less unpopular and therefore the likelihood of success would also increase.

Finally I would highlight two historical examples of successful fiscal consolidation. In the mid-1990s both the US and the UK undertook significant successful fiscal reforms that led to a significant improvement in the public finances. Both was undertaken while monetary conditions was eased significantly. As a result there was very little opposition to fiscal consolidation at the time and there was basically no negative impact on US and UK growth. In fact both economies grew robustly through out the fiscal consolidation phase. This of course is the opposite of the German experience from the early 1990s where the Bundesbank completely “neutralized” any stimulus from fiscal expansion in connection with the Germany reunification (See my earlier post on that topic here.)

PS Above I have not given any attention to the supply side effects of the “scheduled” tax hikes that follows as a result of the US fiscal cliff. NGDP level targeting would not deal with that problem and the issue should certainly not be ignored. Tax hikes can never increase the long-term growth potential of any economy, but the issue is not going to have any visible impact on real GDP growth in 2013 or 2014 for that matter. Supply side effects mostly work with long and variable lags. Furthermore, I am not arguing that one should ignore the fiscal cliff just because the Fed has the power to counteract it. After all the Fed’s performance in recent years has not exactly been impressive so a political compromise would probably be helpful for US growth in 2013 – at least it would reduce some risks of the US falling back into recession.

PPS this is my blog post #400 (including guest posts) since I started blogging last year.

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Related posts:
Market Monetarism vs Krugmanism
Guest blog: NGDP Targeting is NOT just for Central Banks! (David Eagle)
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
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The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92

I have recently written a number of posts (here and here) in which I have been critical about Arthur Laffer’s attempt to argue against fiscal stimulus. As I have stressed in these posts I do not disagree with his skepticism about fiscal stimulus, but with his arguments (and particularly his math). It is therefore only fair that I try to illustrate my view on fiscal stimulus and why fiscal stimulus (on it own) is unlikely to work.

My view of fiscal policy is similar to that view Scott Sumner as articulated in what has been called the “Sumner critique”. According to the Sumner critique if the central bank for example targets inflation or nominal GDP any action by the government to “stimulate” aggregate demand will only work if it does not go counter to the central bank’s nominal target.

Imagine that the central bank is targeting 2% inflation and inflation and expected inflation is at exactly 2%. Now the government in an attempt to spur growth increases the government spending by 10%. In a normal AS-AD model that would shift the AD-curve to the right from AD to AD’ as illustrated in the graph below.

The increase in government spending will initially increase real GDP (output) from Y to Y’, but also push up the price level from P to P’ and hence increase inflation.

However, as the central bank is a strict ECB type inflation targeter it will have to act to the increase in inflation by tightening monetary policy to push back the price level to P (yes, yes I am “confusing” the level of prices and growth in prices, but bare with me – I might just have written the whole thing in growth rates or argued that the central bank targets the price level).

Hence, once the government announces an increase in government spending the central bank would announce that it would reduce the money base (or the growth rate in the money base) to counteract any impact on inflation from the “fiscal stimulus”. The reduction in the money base would push the AD curve back to AD.

This is the Sumner critique – the government can not beat the central bank when it comes to aggregate demand. The central bank will ultimately determine aggregate demand and if the central bank targets for example inflation, the price level or nominal GDP then fiscal policy will have no impact on aggregate demand and note that this is even the case in a situation where unemployment is above the natural rate of unemployment. Hence, we have full crowding out even in a model with sticky prices and wages and underutilization of production factors (involuntary keynesian unemployment).

Furthermore, if the inflation target is credible then investors will realise that any fiscal expansion will be counteracted by a monetary contraction. Therefore, once the fiscal expansion is announce the markets would react by starting to price in a monetary contraction – leading to a strengthening of the country’s currency, falling stock markets and lower inflation expectations – this on its own would counteract the increase in aggregate demand. This is the Chuck Norris effect in fiscal policy.

Obviously in the real world neither monetary policy nor fiscal policy is ever 100% credible and there will always be some uncertainty about the scale and commitment to fiscal expansion and uncertainty about the central bank’s reaction to the fiscal stimulus. However, anybody who have follow developments in the euro zone over the past two years will realise that “promises” of fiscal austerity have been led to a rally in the stock markets (and fixed income markets in the PIIGS countries) as the markets have priced in the impact on aggregate demand of the expected monetary easing from the ECB. This is the reverse Sumner critique – fiscal tightening will not lead to a drop in aggregate demand if the markets expect the central bank to “cover” the short-fall in aggregate demand.

Hence, I think that the Sumner critique is highly relevant for the discussion of fiscal policy today both in Europe and the US. Below I will try to illustrate the Sumner critique with an episode from recent economic history – the German reunification.

The Bundesbank took all the fun out of German reunification 

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 West Germany and East Germany was reunified. Due to the nature of the collapse of communism in East Germany the reunification of Germany happened extremely fast. Hence, most economic-political decisions were highly influenced by political expediency and geo-political and electoral concerns rather than by rational economic considerations.

One such decisions was the imitate political unification of the two Germanys. In fact East Germany was “absorbed” into West Germany. That for example mend that all social benefits and pensions etc., which were available to West German immediately (or more or less so) became available to East Germans and more or less from day one the benefit levels became the same in the entire unified Germany. This obviously led to a rather sharp increase in German government spending. The unification obviously also led to other forms of increases in public spending – for example the Capital was moved from Bonn to Berlin.

It is always hard to estimate how large a fiscal expansion is as the budget situation is not only influenced by discretionary changes in fiscal policy, but also by so-called automatic stabilizers. However, judging from calculation made by the Bundesbank (in the 1990s) the fiscal expansion due to reunification was substantial. In 1989 the cyclical adjusted budget surplus was around 1% of GDP. However, after unification the budget swung into a deficit. In 1990 the cyclical adjusted budget deficit was 2.5% GDP and in 19991 it had increased to 4.2% of GDP. Hence, the fiscal expansion from 1989 to 1991 amounted to more than 5% of GDP. This by any measure is a substantial fiscal easing.

It is very hard to assess what impact this strong fiscal easing had on the German economy – among other things because the Germany of 1989 was not the same country as the Germany of 1990 and 1991. Furthermore, this fiscal easing coincided with significant monetary easing as it controversially was decided to exchange one East Mark for one West Mark. That led to a rather substantial initial increase in the unified Germany’s money supply. However, while it can be hard to assess the direct impact on growth from the fiscal expansion it is much easier to assess the German Bundesbank’s reaction to it.

The Bundesbank was horrified by the scale of fiscal expansion and the potential inflationary consequences and the Bundesbank did not led anybody doubt that it would have to tighten monetary policy to counteract any inflationary consequences of the unification. Secondly, it also pushed strongly for the German government to fast tighten fiscal policy to reduce the budget deficit. Hence, market participants from an early stage would have had to expect that the Bundesbank would tighten monetary policy and that it would “force” the government to tighten fiscal policy. This in many ways is the exact same thing we see in the eurozone today, where the Bundesbank dominated ECB is telling policy makers if you don’t tighten fiscal policy then we will effectively allow monetary conditions to become tighter.

Already in 1991 the Bundesbank moved to counteract perceived inflationary risks and started tightening monetary policy. In a series of aggressive interest rate hikes the Bundesbank increased its key policy rate to nearly 10% in 1992. In that regard it should be noted that the Bundesbank hiked interest rates at a time when global growth was weak due among other things a spike in global oil prices in connection with the first Gulf war. Furthermore, the Bundesbank also put significant pressure on the German government to tighten fiscal policy, which it did in 1992.

There is no doubt that the Bundesbank wanted to demonstrate its independence to the government and probably for exactly that reason chose to be even more aggressive in its monetary tightening that was warranted even according to its own thinking. As a consequence of disagreement between the German government and the Bundesbank the governor of the Bundesbank at the time Karl Otto Pöhl resigned in October 1991 after having initiated monetary tightening.

The monetary tightening in 1991-92 not only sent Germany into a deep and prolonged recession it also was the direct cause of the so-called EMS crisis in 1992-93.

This particular episode in German (and European) monetary history is a powerful illustration of the Sumner critique. It is pretty clear that even substantial fiscal easing (around 5% of GDP) did not have long lasting impact on growth in Germany due to the Bundesbank’s counteractions to curb the perceived (!) inflationary risks.  I do not claim to have proven that the fiscal multiplier is zero, but I hope I have demonstrated that it is that it is unlikely to be positive if the central bank does not play along.

In the case of Germany in the early 1990s the fiscal multiplier was probably even negative as the Bundesbank decided to punish the German government for what it perceived as irresponsible policies. Anybody who is following the political struggle among European governments and European central bankers would have to acknowledge that it is very similar to the situation in Germany after the reunification.

Consequently I think it can be concluded that monetary policy will never be able to lift aggregate demand if the central bank refuse to do so – and that will often be the case if the central bank is worried about its credibility and independence.

I am no Calvinist and I tend to think that some of the calls from certain economists for austerity is rather hysterical given our problems particular in Europe primarily are monetary, however, I do think that the Sumner critique is highly relevant and we under normal circumstances (that is circumstances where the central bank for example pursues an inflation target) should expect the fiscal multiplier to be close to zero.

We all of course also know there are numerous other problems with fiscal easing – for example any temporary increase in public spending seem to become permanent and that is hard good for long-term growth in any economy, but that discussion is more or less irrelevant for the present crisis, which in my view mostly a result of misguided monetary policies rather than failed fiscal policies.

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My discussion above was among other things inspired by Jürg Bibow paper “On the ‘burden’ of German unification” (2003) and a discussion with chief economist in the Danish think tank CEPOS Mads Lundby Hansen

Related posts:

“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?

The always interesting Matthew Yglesias comments on my point that we should stop talking about national accounting standards. In the process Matt is having a bit of fun with two identities.

The national account standard:

(1) Y=C+I+G+NX

And the equation of exchange:

(2) MV=PY

As Matt rightly notes that we can combine the two:

MV=C+I+G+NX

Matt uses the notation X for net exports – I use NX. P is assumed to be 1.

This is of course completely correct – both are identities. They do not tell us anything about causality. However, the point I have been making is that when people think of (1) they also tend to think that causality runs from right to left in the equation. However, that is only the case if you ignore (2).

This is of course is also why the fiscal multiplier is zero. Hence, public spending (G) can only increase nominal GDP (PY) if the central bank plays along (and increases MV) or as Matt express it:

“If monetary stimulus increases MV then what you’ll get is more spending across a wide variety of categories. Since in today’s economy some things are scarce (gasoline, apartments in San Francisco) and other things are not (unskilled labor, mall space near Phoenix) that will mean some increase in real output and some increase in prices. Similarly on the fiscal policy side, there’s no such thing as an inflation-adjusted tax cut or appropriation. You’re pulling on nominal levers, so if crowding out doesn’t occur that has to be because the central bank is tolerating an increase in the price level.”

This is of course also why the idea that we could use fiscal stimulus to get us out of the European crisis makes no sense at all unless the ECB plays along. You can not increase PY without increasing MV.

Matt has been calling for fiscal stimulus in the US, but his fun with the identities could indicate that he is changing his mind or as David Wright comments on Matt’s article:

“The contrapositive of an assertion is logically equivilent to the original assertion, and the contrapositive of this statement is “if the central bank is enforcing an inflation target, fiscal policy will be ineffective because of crowding out”. This is precisely the claim that Scott Sumner has been shouting from the rooftops from the last couple of years, but in that same time you have been advocating fiscal stimulus and the fed has been consistently enforcing an inflation target. Have you changed your tune?” 

I will leave it to Matt to answer, but I agree with David that it surely looks like Matt is now fully converted from the New Keynesian view to Market Monetarism. Not that it really matters – Matt has long been advocating NGDP level targeting and that is what is really important…

UPDATE: Scott Sumner today comments on an other of Matt’s articles in which he also seems to endorse what he calls the Sumner Critique (the fiscal multiplier is zero).

– and unsurprisingly reaches the same conclusion as me (and a bit more).

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