When US 30-year yields hit 5% the Great Recession will be over

US bond yields are spiking today. You might expect me to celebrate it and say this is great (while everybody else are freaking out…) Well, you are right – it doesn’t worry me the least bit.

That said, the US story is not necessarily the same story as the Japanese story. Hence, while Japanese real yields actually have declined sharply US real yields continue to rise as break-even inflation in the US has actually declined recently – most likely on the back of a positive supply shock due to lower commodity prices.

But obviously higher real yields should only be a worry if it is out sync with the development in the economy – as in 2008-9 when real yields and rates spiked, while at the same time the economy collapsed. However, if the economy is in recovery it is only naturally that real yields and rates start to rise as the recovery matures as it certainly seems to be the case in the US.

Anyway, this is not really what I wanted to discuss. Instead I was reminded about something Greenspan said in 1992:

“Let me put it to you this way. If you ask whether we are confirming our view to contain the success that we’ve had to date on inflation, the answer is “yes.” I think that policy is implicit among the members of this Committee, and the specific instruments that we may be using or not using are really a quite secondary question. As I read it, there is no debate within this Committee to abandon our view that a non-inflationary environment is best for this country over the longer term. Everything else, once we’ve said that, becomes technical questions. I would say in that context that on the basis of the studies, we have seen that to drive nominal GDP, let’s assume at 4-1/2 percent, in our old philosophy we would have said that [requires] a 4-1/2 percent growth in M2. In today’s analysis, we would say it’s significantly less than that. I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal of which the money supply relationships are technical mechanisms to achieve that. And I don’t see any change in our view…and we will know they are convinced (about “price stability”) when we see the 30-year Treasury at 5-1/2 percent.

Yes, that is correct. Greenspan was thinking that the Federal Reserve should (or actually did) target NGDP growth of 4.5%. Furthermore, he (indirectly) said that that would correspond to 30-year US Treasury yields being around 5.5%.

This is more or less also what we had all through the Great Moderation – or rather both 5% 30-year yields and 5% NGDP growth. However, the story is different today. While, NGDP growth expectations for the next 1-2 years are around 4-5% (ish) 30-year bond yields are around 3.3%. This in my view is a pretty good illustration that while the US economy is in recovery market participants remain very doubtful that we are about to return to a New Great Moderation of stable 5% NGDP growth.

That said, with yields continuing to rise faster than the acceleration in NGDP growth we can say that we are seeing a gradual return to something more like the Great Moderation. That obviously is great news.

In fact I would argue that when US 30-year hopefully again soon hit 5% then I think that we at that time will have to conclude that the Great Recession finally has come to an end. Last time US 30-year yields were at 5% was in the last year of the Great Moderation – 2007.

We are still very far away from 5% yields, but we are getting closer than we have been for a very long time – thanks to the fed’s change of policy regime in September last year.

Finally, when US 30-year bond yields hit 5% I will stop calling for US monetary easing. I will, however, not stop calling for a proper transparent and rule-based NGDP level targeting regime before we get that.

The biggest cost of nominal stability is ignorance

Anybody who has visited a high inflation country (there are few of those around today, but Belarus is one) will notice that the citizens of that country is highly aware of the developments in nominal variables such as inflation, wage growth, the exchange rates and often also the price of gold and silver.

I am pretty sure that an average Turkish housewife in the Turkish countryside in 1980s would be pretty well aware of the level of inflation, the lira exchange rate both against the dollar and the D-Mark and undoubtedly would know the gold price. This is only naturally as high and volatile inflation had a great impact on the average Turk’s nominal (and real!) income. In fact for most Turks at that time the most important economic decision she would make would be how she would hedge against nominal instability.

The greatest economic crisis in world history always involve nominal instability whether deflation or inflation. Likewise economic prosperity seems to be conditioned on nominal stability.

The problem, however, is that when you have massive nominal instability then everybody realises this, but contrary to this when you have a high degree of monetary stability then households, companies and most important policy makers tend to become ignorant of the importance of monetary policy in ensuring that nominal stability.

I have touched on this topic in a couple of earlier posts. First, I have talked about the “Great Moderation economist” who “grew” up in the Great Moderation era and as a consequence totally disregards the importance of money and therefore come up with pseudo economic theories of the business cycle and inflation. The point is that during the Great Moderation nominal variables in the US and Europe more or less behaved as if the Federal Reserve and the ECB were targeting a NGDP growth level path and therefore basically was no recessions and inflationary problems.

As I argued in another post (“How I would like to teach Econ 101”) the difference between microeconomy and macroeconomy is basically the introduction of money and price rigidities (and aggregation). However, when we target the NGDP level we basically fix MV in the equation of exchange and that means that we de facto “abolish” the macroeconomy. That also means that we effectively do away with recessions and inflationary and deflationary problems. In such a world the economic agents will not have to be concerned about nominal factors. In such a world the only thing that is important is real factors. In a nominally stable world the important economic decisions are what education to get, where to locate, how many hours to works etc. In a nominally unstable world all the time will be used to figure out how to hedge against this instability. Said in another way in a world where monetary institutions are constructed to ensure nominal stability either through a nominal GDP level target or Free Banking money becomes neutral.

A world of nominal stability obviously is what we desperately want. We don’t have that anymore. The great nominal stability – and therefore as real stability – of the Great Moderation is gone. So one would believe that it should be easy to convince everybody that nominal instability is at the core of our problems in Europe and the US.

However, very few economists and even fewer policy makers seem to get it. In fact it has often struck me as odd how many central bankers seem to have very little understanding of monetary theory and it sometimes even feels like they are not really interested in monetary matters. Why is that? And why do central bankers – in especially Europe – keep spending more time talking about fiscal reforms and labour market reform than about talking about ensuring nominal stability?

I believe that one of the reasons for this is that the Great Moderation basically made it economically rational for most of us not to care about monetary matters. We lived in a micro world where there where relatively few monetary distortions and money therefore had a very little impact on economic decisions.

Furthermore, because monetary policy was extremely credible and economic agents de facto expected the central banks to deliver a stable growth level path of nominal GDP monetary policy effectively became “endogenous” in the sense that it was really expectations (and our friend Chuck Norris) that ensured NGDP stability . Hence, during the Great Moderation any “overshoot” in money supply growth was counteracted by a similar drop in money-velocity (See also my earlier post on  “The inverse relationship between central banks’ credibility and the credibility of monetarism”).

Therefore, when nominal stability had been attained in the US and Europe in the mid-1980s monetary policy became very easy. The Federal Reserve and the ECB really did not have to do much. Market expectations in reality ensured that nominal stability was maintained. During that period central bankers perfected the skill of looking and and sounding like credible central bankers. But in reality many central bankers around the really forgot about monetary theory. Who needs monetary theory in a micro world?

We are therefore now in that paradoxical situation that the great nominal stability of the Great Moderation makes it so much harder to regain nominal stability because most policy makers became ignorant of the importance of money in ensuring nominal stability.

Today it seems unbelievable that policy makers failed to see the monetary causes for the Great Depressions and policy makers in 1970s would refuse to acknowledge the monetary causes of the Great Inflation. But unfortunately policy makers still don’t get it – the cause of economic crisis is nearly always monetary and we can only get out of this mess if we understand monetary theory. The only real cost of the Great Moderation was the monetary theory became something taught by economic historians. It is about time policy makers study monetary theory – it is no longer enough to try to look credible when everybody know you have failed.

PS there is also an investment perspective on this discussion – as investors in a nominal stable world tend to become much more leveraged than in a world of monetary instability. That is fine as long as nominal stability persists, but when it breaks down then deleveraging becomes the name of the game.

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