Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If Only Bloggers Ran the Fed...

From the latest Kauffman Economic Outlook, a quarterly survey of economic bloggers, we find this figure:


Too bad bloggers cannot run the Fed.  At least we have changed the conversation so that the Fed is talking about NGDP targeting.

P.S. A note to those bloggers who want the central bank to target repo rates.  If a central bank successfully adopts a NGDP level target, then many of the problems surrounding repos and interbank lending would disappear

Yes, the Fed Still Has a Communication Problem

Ryan Avent's initial enthusiasm for the Fed's new communication strategy is beginning to wane.  Avent began to lose his new-found Fed religion after reading Lorenzo Bini Smaghi's critique of the Fed's new policies.  Here is Smaghi:
[I]f the objective of price stability is defined over the longer term, communication becomes more complex. In particular, the link between the inflation forecasts and the policy decision is unclear. What should market participants derive from a published inflation forecast above the two per cent target in the long run (but not necessarily over the next two years)? Should they expect a tightening to take place? And when? The long run is not a “policy-relevant” time horizon and thus has little value for those attempting to understand the central bank’s next moves.
Welcome to the club.  As I have been arguing the past few weeks, the Fed's new communication strategy is at  at best white noise to the market and at worst worst a quagmire of confusion. For example, how should one interpret the fact that FOMC's forecast did not just push out the horizon for increasing the federal funds rate but also lowered the expected growth rate for real GDP in 2012 and 2013? Is the  FOMC signalling additional monetary stimulus or  a weaker economy to come over the next two years? Some observers noticed long-term nominal interest rates dropped after the official launch of the policy last week and concluded the Fed was signalling more monetary stimulus.  The fact that long-term real interest rates also declined suggests that the market interpreted the policy as signalling lower expected growth.  So much for a policy that is supposed to add clarity and stimulus through expectation management.  There is a better way to this. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The FOMC Confuses Me

The FOMC has spoken and here is what it said (my bold):
To support a stronger economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with the dual mandate, the Committee expects to maintain a highly accommodative stance for monetary policy. In particular, the Committee decided today to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that economic conditions--including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run--are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through late 2014.
Now what does this all mean?  The first bold claims the Fed has been running a highly accommodative monetary policy and will continue to do so. Really, the Fed has been running a highly accommodative monetary policy?  I did not realize that an ongoing nominal spending slump, high cyclical unemployment, elevated money demand, a shortage of safe assets, and a persistent output gap were signs of a highly accommodative Fed policy. Nor did I realize that the Fed Chairman acknowledging that the Fed may need to do further large scale asset purchases in the near future was also considered a sign that the Fed was being highly accommodative.  Silly me, I must be confused.

But no worries, I can take comfort in knowing the Fed going forward will be providing aggressive monetary stimulus based on the second bold above, right?  Ryan Avent seems to think so:
[T]he decision to push out the horizon for a rate increase isn't simply an admission that the economy will be weak in 2014. With the target rate at zero, the Fed can only bring down the real interest rate by raising inflation expectations. To generate higher inflation expectations, the Fed may have to promise to be imprudent at some future date—like 2014. Essentially, the Fed is hinting that it won't stomp on a boom in 2014 even if it's generating increases in prices and wages that might normally make the central bank a little uncomfortable. 
That makes sense and others like Gavin Davies and Paul Krugman agree. But wait, I just looked at the FOMC's economic projections and now I am confused again. The FOMC did not just push out the horizon for increasing the federal funds rate, it also lowered its forecast for real GDP for 2012 and 2013.  So is the  FOMC pushing out the horizon because it now expects a weaker economy or is it really trying to be imprudent?  And what is the Fed's definition of imprudence? In 2014 when the FOMC projects it will finally raise interest rates the unemployment rate is expected to be near 7% and inflation should be hovering under the Fed's new inflation target of 2%.  That sounds more like prudence than imprudence to me.

But silly me, what do I know.  Let's turn to the real arbiter of such issues, the bond market.  How do they interpret this policy innovation?  Has expected inflation taken off indicating the bond market expects higher aggregate demand because of this new policy?  Uhm, no:


Expected inflation on the 10-treasury remains about where it has been over the last few months.  Not exactly the what one expects from an aggressive stance of monetary policy.  Nothing to see here, move along.

Okay, enough snark from me.  The real problem with the Fed's new communication strategy is that it looks only at the expected path of the federal funds rate.  But that really does not tell us much because a low federal funds rate is only stimulative if it is low relative to the neutral interest rate. And since the Fed is not providing an estimate of the neutral federal funds rate at the various horizons its really hard to know the implications of these forecasts. This lack of clarity is why I am confused and why this new policy probably will not pack much of a punch.

If the Fed really wants to manage expectations, then the FOMC should (1) add an expected path of the neutral interest rate to its forecast or (2) drop the forecast altogether and set up an explicit objective for monetary policy.  I favor the latter and would have the Fed target a nominal GDP level target.  It would be a whole lot easier to understand and implement.  Maybe someday.

Update: I should have said for (2) that the Fed needs to set an explicit level target.  Yes, it now has an explicit inflation target, but unless it is a really flexible one that corrects for for past misses and ignores supply shocks it is bound to create problems.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Shining Star of Europe?

Fareed Zakaria points us to what may be the shinning star of Europe:
[P]erhaps the biggest reason for poverty-stricken nations like Egypt to pay close attention to Poland is that it is a very rare breed in today's world, especially in Europe. Poland has a strong economy - the sixth biggest in the European Union now and the only European Union country to avoid a recession altogether. None of its banks needed to be rescued.   Its economy grew 4% last year, and is on track to grow 3% in 2012. Why, you'll ask. How did it survive the turmoil in the Euro Zone? One answer is that it has strong domestic demand and has been pouring money into infrastructure projects.   But the real - and fortuitous - reason is that Poland has yet to be allowed in to the Euro Zone - it continues to use zlotys instead of the euro. So unlike Greece or Italy, it was able to devalue its currency to stay competitive.
I know that last part will leave some of my hard money readers in angst, so think of it this way.  Poland has been able to stabilize domestic demand by adjusting its monetary policy accordingly. The Eurozone periphery has not been able to do this and paid dearly as seen below:


Now Poland has done other things right as noted by Zakaria, but what this contrast highlights is that the Eurozone crisis is as much a monetary crisis as anything else.  Yes, there are deeper structural problems with the Eurozone, but if Eurozone officials want to address these deeper problems they need to first address the immediate monetary problems behind the crisis.  Maybe the shining star of Europe will help them appreciate the monetary nature of the crisis. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Fed's Long-Term Interest Rate Forecast May Backfire

The Fed is about to release it first long-term interest rate forecast. Gavyn Davies explains how this could enable U.S. monetary policy to add more stimulus without actually expanding its balance sheet. It would do so  by managing nominal expectations. Here is Davies:
What is the motivation behind these changes? Mr Bernanke has normally justified such steps in terms of stabilising expectations about the Fed’s genuine intentions, especially on inflation and the forward path for interest rates. At a time when the extension of the balance sheet is causing political difficulties for the Fed, and when inflation expectations could become unhinged by the rapid expansion of the monetary base, the chairman is looking for alternative ways of easing monetary conditions without printing more money. Modern macro-economics suggests that operating on expectations is one of the most powerful tools available to him, though he is using it much more cautiously than many economists would like to see...
[T]he new mechanism will provide the Fed with a potentially important tool to influence expectations, and therefore the course of the economy. Paul Krugman was the first to argue in the 1990s that, in the modern version of the liquidity trap, an economy could get stuck permanently with high unemployment because of undesirable expectations of deflation. With short rates not able to drop below zero, the real rate of interest could be too high to equilibrate savings and investment in the economy, so the normal monetary route back to lower unemployment might be blocked. The answer, said Krugman, was for the central bank deliberately to increase the expected rate of inflation, and therefore to cut the real rate of interest while nominal short rates were fixed at zero.
That is how the Fed hopes it will turn out. I think it will backfire because what observers really need is to know where the expected path of the federal funds will be relative to the expected path of the natural (or equilibrium) federal federal funds.  Here is what I said about this previously:
The FOMC lowering its expected path of the target federal funds rate, however, might also be interpreted as the Fed revising down its economic forecast and adjusting its target interest rate forecast accordingly to maintain the current stance of monetary policy.  In other words, a lower long-term interest rate forecast might simply be viewed as the Fed expecting the natural interest rate to remain depressed longer than previously expected and thus needing to hold down its target federal funds rate target longer than expected.  Here, the Fed would not be adding stimulus, but maintaining the status quo as the economic outlook worsened. Given the Fed's failure over the past three years to add sufficient stimulus to restore robust nominal spending and close the output gap, this less favorable interpretation in the current environment would amount to more passive tightening.
Gavyn Davies also recognizes another problem with using this policy innovation to steer monetary policy via expectations management: it may not be credible. Credibility, however, would not be a problem if the Fed would set an explicit nominal destination.  Doing so would avoid the time inconsistency problem that concerns Davies.  From my same post:
That there could be different interpretations of the Fed lowering its long-term forecast for the target federal funds rate speaks to a more fundamental problem with this new policy: the Fed has failed to set an explicit nominal target for monetary policy.  Not knowing where the Fed is ultimately heading makes it difficult to interpret changes in the FOMC's long-term interest rate forecast. It is like a captain of a ship who navigates by focusing on the rudder, but fails to set a destination point.  It would be far better for the captain to pick his target destination and then adjusts the rudder accordingly.   This is why it is so important for the Fed to set a nominal GDP level target.  It would provide a clearer road map of where the Fed wants the nominal economy to go and it would make interpreting changes in the expected path of interest rates easier, if not redundant.  It is time for the Fed to focus on the destination.
Okay, so the Fed is not likely to announce a NGDP level target tomorrow.  I do wish, though, that it would  also provide the expected path of  the natural federal funds rate on its long-term interest rate forecasts.  If so, it would help the public better understand the implications of the FOMC's expected path of the federal funds rate. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How to Fix the ECB's Communication Problem

The ECB has a serious communication problem.  It has undertaken a number of unconventional measures lately--the three year LTROs, the acceptance of questionable assets for collateral, and the large expansion of its balance sheet--that amount to a QE program by stealth.  And therein lies the problem.  The ECB's actions have not been communicated to the public ex-ante nor have they been linked to a targeted outcome.  In short, the ECB is failing to manage expectations, the most important monetary policy transmission channel at its disposal.  

Now Goldman Sachs would say that the above is a charitable interpretation of the ECB's recent actions. They note in a research paper (via Cardiff Garcia) that the ECB is not just failing to manage expectations, but is actually destabilizing expectations.  
The ECB offers little ex ante information about its outright asset purchases via the securities markets programme (SMP). The stock of outstanding purchases is only revealed ex post, and no information ispublished on the composition of that stock, either by maturity or by country of issuer. There is no preannounced schedule of purchases. Market participants thus face substantial uncertainty about when and where the ECB will intervene: this probably serves to reduce the liquidity of the underlying market and precludes the possibility that the market will anticipate the ECB’s actions, helping policy makers to achieve their policy objectives.
This approach extends to other aspects of the ECB’s nonstandard policy measures. For example, the ECB has yet to announce whether further 3-year LTROs will be conducted beyond February this year. Such an announcement would serve to help stabilise market conditions further, by providing further reassurance about the availability of funding over longer horizons. Should we not see such an announcement at the February Governing Council meeting, the potential for a regression in market developments is obvious. The kink in peripheral yield curves at around 3-year maturities is evidence of this concern.
More generally, the wider ECB communication surrounding its enhanced credit support has always been grudging: the ECB has, at times, appeared reluctant to offer such support, despite the fact that, in practice, it has done so in vast amounts. By implication, the reassurance offered to households and firms about the ECB’s commitment to macro stabilisation has been weakened, to the prejudice of the effectiveness of the policy as a stabilisation tool.
There is an easy solution to the ECB's communication problem that directly and aggressively addresses the insufficient aggregate demand problem while still maintaining a long-run nominal anchor. And to boot, it does not depend on bank lending (though financial intermediation would probably increase as a result).  The solution is setting a nominal GDP level target. The level part is important because it signals clearly to the public that the ECB would commit to buying up (or selling) as many assets as needed until nominal GDP hit some pre-crisis trend path.  Not only would this fix many of the Euro debt problems, it would create more certainty and cause the public to much of the heavy lifting in restoring aggregate demand (i.e. the public would adjust their portfolios in anticipation of the ECB buying up more assets and in the process cause nominal spending to adjust largely on its own. See here for more details.)  This is what makes the ECB's floundering so frustrating for me to watch.

Update: Be sure to read Cardiff Garcia's post on the ECB's communication problem. It was the motivation for this one.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hey Newt, We Need Sound Money Not Hard Money

This is disappointing:
Speaking at a foreign policy forum in South Carolina on Tuesday, Gingrich advocated a "commission on gold to look at the whole concept of how do we get back to hard money."
I guess Newt Gingrich has not been reading fellow conservative Ramesh Ponnuru, the mostly right-of-center Market Monetarists, or even libertarian Tyler Cowen.  If he had he would know what we need is sound money, not hard money.  

P.S. There is no need for a new commission on the gold standard.  It has been extensively studied and there is a huge literature on it.  I would start with Barry Eichengreen

Monday, January 16, 2012

James Pethokoukis on NGDP Targeting

James Pethokoukis has a new article in Commentary that examines nominal GDP (NGDP) targeting and its potential to spark a recovery.  The piece starts out fine, but then gets gets confused because it fails to distinguish between a NGDP growth rate target and a NGDP level target.  A NGDP growth rate target, like an inflation target, lets bygones be bygones.  A NGDP level target, on the other hand, corrects for past mistakes.  Under a NGDP level target a central bank would commit to reigning in aggregate nominal spending if it overshot and  vice versa.  Such a rule would therefore actually anchor long-run inflation expectations while allowing for aggressive catch-up growth (or contraction) in aggregate nominal spending so that NGDP returned to its trend path.  The following figure illustrates these important differences:


Note that with a NGDP growth rate target (the blue line) NGDP can be growing on target and yet the big collapse in aggregate demand that precedes it is never corrected.  With those points made, let's turn to Pethokoukis' piece:
And there’s the rub. The idea of nominal GDP-targeting would threaten the Fed’s hard-fought credibility as an inflation-killer and raise expectations of future inflation simply to jimmy the unemployment rate a point or so lower than it would be five years from now. 
No. There might be higher inflation in the short-run, but over the long-run a NGDP level target would anchor  (see the red line) nominal expectations.  But even then, some higher inflation over the short run is actually justified.  For it would restore nominal incomes to where they were expected to be when debtors and creditors agreed to nominal contracts and similarly it would return debt burdens to the path expected when the contracts were signed. 

And then there is the Glenn Hubbard adding to the confusion:
 [M]arkets [may] begin to worry that the Fed won’t be able to unwind its positions in a timely manner to prevent an uncontrolled inflation surge...That concern is well justified, according to R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia’s business school and potential Fed chairman if a Republican wins the White House in 2012. As he told me recently: “In the near term, it’s hard for me to imagine that [NGDP-targeting] would work much differently than what the Fed is currently doing, which isn’t exactly a booming success. And then in the longer term, I would worry about inflationary expectations becoming unhinged….
No.  Hubbard is thinking of a NGDP growth rate target (the blue line.) Advocates of NGDP targeting are thinking of a level target (the red line) which implies more aggressive but systematic monetary stimulus. And no, the inflation expectations would not get unhinged because this is a level target.  As we learned from FDR's experience with level targeting in 1933-1936, such an approach can do wonders for the real economy and still maintain a nominal anchor.   Ben Bernanke knows all this and advocated something like it for Japan.  Consequently, I do not think he is worried about unmooring inflation expectations, but is concerned about the politics of adopting such a new rule.  If Republican leadership would give NGDP level targeting a fair hearing  they might actually like it. 

Did Fed Policy Matter to Housing Prices?

Kenneth Kuttner has a new paper that reexamines the relationship between the Fed's interest rates and house prices during the housing boom.  The paper is receiving some attention because it claims that the existing literature on this topic collectively shows only a small role for interest rates on the housing prices.  Here is Kuttner:
All available evidence — existing studies, plus the new findings presented above — points to a rather small effect of interest rates on housing prices. VAR-based estimates of the effect of a 25 basis point expansionary monetary policy shock range from 0.3% to 0.9%, both in the U.S. and in other industrialized countries....they are too small to explain the previous decade’s tremendous real estate boom in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Looking back it is clear that there were other developments that contributed to the housing boom like financial innovation, global demand for safe assets, poor governance, industry structure, housing policy, and misaligned creditor incentives.   Contrary to the Kuttner's claim, however, this does not mean that the contribution of the Fed's low interest rates were trivial. Here are the reasons why.

First, to really learn the full impact of the low interest rates one needs to also consider their indirect effect on housing.  One indirect effect of the Fed's low interest rate policy is that it influenced financial innovation and the demand for safe assets which further lowered yields.  When the Fed pushed interest rates low, held them there, and promised to keep them there for a "considerable period" in 2003 it created new incentives for the financial system.  First, via the expectations hypothesis (which says long-term interest rates are simply an average of short-term interest rates over the same period plus a term premium) these developments pushed down medium to longer yields as well, as seen in the figure below:


As Barry Ritholtz notes, this drop in yields caused big problems for fixed income fund managers who were expected to deliver a certain return.  Consequently, there was a "search for yield" or as Ritholtz says these managers of pension funds, large trusts, and foundations had to "scramble for yield."  They needed a higher but relatively safe yield in order to meet their expected return.  The U.S. financial system meet this rise in demand by transforming risky assets into safe, AAA-rated assets.  The Fed's low interest rate policies also increased the demand for safe assets for hedge fund managers.  For them the promise of low short-term interest rates for a "considerable period" screamed opportunity.  As Diego Espinosa shows in a forthcoming paper, these investors saw a predictable spread between low funding costs created by the Fed and the return on higher yielding but safe assets.  They too wanted more AAA-rated assets to invest in so that they could take advantage of this spread that would be around for a "considerable period."  Here too, the U.S. financial system responds by  transforming risky assets into safe assets. 

There is another way the Fed's low interest rate policy increased the demand for safe assets during the housing boom.  The Fed controls the world's main reserve currency and many emerging markets are formally or informally pegged to dollar. Thus, its monetary policy is exported across much of the globe--it is a monetary superpower. This means that the other two monetary powers, the ECB and the Bank of Japan, are mindful of U.S. monetary policy lest their currencies becomes too expensive relative to the dollar and all the other currencies pegged to the dollar. As as result, the Fed's monetary policy gets exported to some degree to Japan and the Euro area as well. In the early-to-mid 2000s, those dollar-pegged emerging economies pegged were forced to buy more dollars when the Fed loosened monetary policy with its low interest rate policies.  These economies then used the dollars to buy up U.S. debt. This increased the demand for safe assets.  To the extent  the ECB and the Bank of Japan were also responding to U.S. monetary policy, they too were acquiring foreign reserves and  channeling  credit back to the U.S. economy.  Thus, the easier U.S. monetary policy became the greater the demand for safe assets and the greater the amount of recycled credit coming back to the U.S. economy.  This is an important but overlooked point in most discussion about how the Fed's low interest rates contributed to the housing boom.

Second, the claim that "all available evidence" point to a small effect ignores some studies that actually reach the opposite conclusion.  For example, there are two studies by Rudiger Ahrend et. al that show low interest rates, specifically ones lower than those prescribed by the Taylor Rule, in conjunction with rapid financial innovation were very important to the housing boom for most of the OECD countries. Here is one graph from the papers that makes this point:



Another study that finds contrary evidence is Eickmeier and Hofmann (2010) who use a factor-augmented VAR to show that monetary policy not only affected house prices, but also credit spreads and debt levels.

Third, one problem with using VARs for this analysis, as is done in the Kuttner paper, is that they show the effect of a monetary policy shock.  Such shocks, however, have become notoriously hard to identify over the past few decades in VARS because Fed actions have become so much more transparent and predictable, and also because monetary policy has become better at responding to output shocks (at least prior to the Great Recession). As a result, shocks to the federal funds rate show much milder effects on other variables (See Boivin and Giannoni, 2006).  Also, even if one is capable of properly identifying shocks, it seems the real problem was more the sustained shift in monetary policy--the 2002-2004 easing cycle--that cannot really be called a shock per se.  Maybe one can call it a series of shocks or change in systematic monetary policy, but the point is not to look at one impulse response function and draw conclusions, but look at the cumulative effect of this easing cycle and its contribution to the housing boom.  The Eickmeier and Hofmann (2010) study does just that.  Among other things, it runs a counterfactual experiment that allows the authors to see what part of the housing price boom can be attributed to the Fed's actions, both shocks and systematic policy.  Here is what they find:


The blue line is the combined effect of shocks and systematic policy on housing prices.  The OFHEO house price index shows a large amount of the surge in home prices is because of monetary policy, while the Case-Shiller index shows somewhat smaller but still meaningfully large role for the Fed.  In both cases, monetary policy only matters for the early-to-mid 2000 period.  And that is what most critics have been arguing: the Fed's policies in early-to-mid 200s contributed to housing boom of that period.

Now Kuttner's view may one day be vindicated, but before that it happens the above points need to be addressed.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pushback on the FOMC Transcript Hysteria

Almost everyone seems to be reveling in the release of the 2006 FOMC minutes that show the Fed was not terribly concerned or aware of the looming dangers from the housing bust.  For example, the Atlantic Wire headlines that the "Federal Reserve officials look extra dumb in 2006 transcript" while the Wall Street Journal RTE blog similarly notes that the Fed was "riding housing roller coaster with eyes shut."  Even the USA Today leads with "Fed slow to see fallout from housing."  It is a full blown Fed-bashing party.

Normally, I am the first one to participate in such parties, but here I actually want to push back against this hysteria.  Yes, the Fed like most observers did not understand all the linkages between housing, the financial system, and the broader economy at the time, but this fact does not really matter. What matters--and is missed by these observers--is that the Fed was fairly successful in preventing the housing recession from spreading to the broader economy for almost two years!  From the peak of the housing market in the spring of 2006 to about mid-2008, the Fed was able to keep aggregate nominal spending growing with minimal slowdown from the housing recession.  It did so by keeping nominal spending (and by implication inflation) expectations stable over this time.  The figure below shows this remarkable performance for this period using the TIPs-generated 10-year expected inflation series:


More figures on the Fed's relatively successful performance over the 2006-2008 period can be found here.   Now, ultimately the Fed did make a historically large policy blunder in mid-2008 by allowing the largest peacetime collapse in nominal GDP since the late 1930s. The collapse is evident in the figure above.   But that was mid-2008, not 2006, and it is something the Fed could have been minimized, if not prevented, with something like a nominal GDP level target.  But that is an another story.  The main point here is that all the excitement over the 2006 FOMC transcripts completely ignores the success of the Fed in 2006 and 2007.

Update:  Matthew Yglesias and Karl Smith make similar points.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Graph for Mario Draghi and the ECB to Ponder

ECB President Mario Draghi thinks he is doing a swell job.  Well, maybe, but if he and the rest of the ECB governing council really want to restore robust growth in Europe they should spend some time wrapping their minds around the following figure.


Now should President Draghi and the rest of the ECB governing council get stumped they can find the meaning of this figure here.   

Is There Really A German Bias at the ECB?

Following up on a post by Scott Sumner, Christian Odendahl at The Economist pushes back on my claim that there is a German bias to ECB monetary policy.  He argues that ECB monetary policy was not appropriate for Germany prior to the crisis and since then it is only been a coincidence that ECB policy seems more aligned to the needs of the German economy than the rest of the Eurozone. He therefore concludes there is no German bias at the ECB.

I think both Sumner and Odendahl are wrong for several reasons.  First, they reach their conclusion by pointing to specific episodes where ECB monetary policy may have been inappropriate for Germany rather than taking a systematic view of how the ECB responds to regional economic shocks.   If one looks at how the ECB on average conducts monetary policy, then it is hard not to conclude they do so in a manner that favors Germany and the core.  Such evidence can be shown with Taylor Rules and nominal GDP (NGDP) trend graphs, but let me provide some further evidence using the figure below.  It shows for the period 1999:Q1-2011:Q3 the percent of the forecast error for the ECB refi interest rate that can be explained by shocks to the NGDP growth rates in the core and non-core regions of the Eurozone, as well as from shocks to ECB monetary policy.  In other words, this figure shows how important unexpected economic developments in the two regions were on average to changes in ECB monetary policy over this period.  (These results come from a vector autoregression that also controls for the Fed's influence on the ECB policy rate. More details below.*):


This figure indicates that economic shocks to the non-core region were not very consequential in shaping ECB monetary policy, while shocks to the core were very important.  Empirical evidence like tihs is hard to ignore when trying to make sense of what the ECB has been doing.

The second problem is that Sumner and Odendahl both ignore important political eocnomy considerations, which in my view makes for an even stronger case that the ECB has a Germany bias. First, the Germans only agreed to cede monetary power to the ECB after they got it located in Frankfurt and made sure its first leader (Wim Duisenberg) and chief economist (Otmar Issing) were supporters of the hard money view.  These decisions guaranteed the ECB would inherit the conservative Bundesbank culture and its approach to monetary policy.  Second, since Germany is the largest economy in the Eurozone, its influence was bound to be disproportionate at the ECB.  Germany's inordinate influence was evidenced just last year by the market reaction to the resignation of Germany's Jurgen Stark from the ECB.  It is also evident in the implicit deal making the ECB seems to be doing with the German government on the crisis.  To claim there is no German bias at the ECB is to ignore the significant political influence Germany has over the ECB.  As Ryan Avent noted awhile back, if Germany really wanted to end the crisis via the ECB monetary spigot they could do so.  The fact that the ECB has not aggressively opened its spigot is another testament to the German bias at the ECB.

So yes, there is a German Bias at the ECB.  Fortunately, that bias is ebbing though not fast enough.

Update:  Below is a figure that shows the regional NGDP growth rates (% change from a year ago) and the ECB policy rate.  As explained here, the spread between the NGDP growth rate and policy interest rate can  provide an indication of the stance of monetary policy.


No surprise here to see the ECB kept its policy rate close to the core regions NGDP growth rate.  According to this metric, ECB monetary policy was much more in tune with the core countries prior to the crisis.  (One drawback to this metric is that it does not account for past misses.)

*The core is defined here as the combined NGDP of Germany, France, Netherlands, Austria, and Finland. The results come from a vector autorgession (VAR) using 6 lags, a constant, an the federal funds rate (ffr) as an exogenous variable.  The ffr enters the VAR exogenously for reasons discussed here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Weekend Macro Musings

Here are some some macro musings for the weekend.  I hope to revisit them in more detail later.

(1)  More safe asset discussion.  Arpit Gupta replies to my reply on his critique of my post on the importance of safe assets.  My view (summarized well by Matthew Yglesias) is that safe assets matter to the extent they act as transaction assets (or money) in the modern banking system and that they are currently in short supply. Rebecca Wilder weighs in on how to properly define a safe asset and  Tyler Cowen says maybe the safe assets problem explains the large stock of excess reserves in the United States. 

(2) Caroline Baum does a take down of the Fed's new policy of providing long-term forecasts of its target federal funds rates. Meanwhile, Stephen Williamson says sometimes more information is not always better and that this new policy may simply add more confusion. 

(3) Marcus Nunes responds to Scott Sumner's claim that the there is no German bias to the ECB.  I agree with Marcus for reasons laid out here, here, and here.

(4)  Izabella Kaminska has lost all hope in central banking, claiming that the monetary policy transmission mechanism is frozen up in Europe and that central bankers are having an existential crisis. This article in The Economist lends support to her view.  I think these worries are all wrong.  Similar problems existed during the Great Depression and yet monetary policy was able to spark a robust recovery in 1933 that lasted until 1936 (it was unfortunately cut short by misguided policies). The monetary stimulus was not dependent on a bank lending channel, but instead relied  on the FDR signalling and then doing a quantitative easing program guided by an explicit price level target.  Today, both the Fed and the ECB could do the same by adopting a nominal GDP level target.  Here is how it would work and here are responses to objections to nominal GDP level targeting. 

(5)  John Chapman notes that despite the Fed claiming it intends to keep the stock of mortgage back securities (MBS) stable by reinvesting earnings, its stock of MBS is actually declining and causing a steady decline in the monetary base.  Is this the Fed doing a stealth tightening?  

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

FOMC Decides to Focus on the Rudder, Not the Destination

The FOMC minutes from the December meeting reveal that starting this month the Fed will start publishing conditional long-term forecasts for the federal funds rate in its Summary of Economic Projections (SEP):
At the conclusion of their discussion, participants decided to incorporate information about their projections of appropriate monetary policy into the SEP beginning in January. Specifically, the SEP will include information about participants' projections of the appropriate level of the target federal funds rate in the fourth quarter of the current year and the next few calendar years, and over the longer run; the SEP also will report participants' current projections of the likely timing of the first increase in the target rate given their projections of future economic conditions.
So what to make of this new policy?  One view is that it provides more certainty about the future path of the target policy interest rate.  Consequently, it would easier to make long-term investment decisions and that added certainty by itself might add some stimulus to the economy.  The long-term forecast could also be used as a back-door way to provide more monetary stimulus to the economy.  The Fed could do this by lowering its long-term forecast of the target federal funds rate which could be interpreted as indicating greater than expected monetary stimulus in the future.  This, in turn, would improve the economic outlook and thereby encourage households and firms to increase their spending today.  In short, a lower forecast of the future target federal funds rates could raise current aggregate demand. 

The FOMC lowering its expected path of the target federal funds rate, however, might also be interpreted as the Fed revising down its economic forecast and adjusting its target interest rate forecast accordingly to maintain the current stance of monetary policy.  In other words, a lower long-term interest rate forecast might simply be viewed as the Fed expecting the natural interest rate to remain depressed longer than previously expected and thus needing to hold down its target federal funds rate target longer than expected.  Here, the Fed would not be adding stimulus, but maintaining the status quo as the economic outlook worsened. Given the Fed's failure over the past three years to add sufficient stimulus to restore robust nominal spending and close the output gap, this less favorable interpretation in the current environment would amount to more passive tightening by the Fed. 

That there could be different interpretations of the Fed lowering its long-term forecast for the target federal funds rate speaks to a more fundamental problem with this new policy: the Fed has failed to set an explicit nominal target for monetary policy.  Not knowing where the Fed is ultimately heading makes it difficult to interpret changes in the FOMC's long-term interest rate forecast. It is like a captain of a ship who navigates by focusing on the rudder, but fails to set a destination point.  It would be far better for the captain to pick his target destination and then adjusts the rudder accordingly.   This is why it is so important for the Fed to set a nominal GDP level target.  It would provide a clearer road map of where the Fed wants the nominal economy to go and it would make interpreting changes in the expected path of interest rates easier, if not redundant.  It is time for the Fed to focus on the destination.

P.S. Cardiff Garcia notes another problem with this new policy:
One longstanding concern about doing this is that the public might misinterpret the projections as a promise of what the Fed will do rather than something contingent on how the economy performs over time, and the minutes noted that at least one committee member expressed this worry.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Market Monetarism in The Telegraph

Guess who wrote this paragraph:
Central banks have the means to prevent a 1930s outcome, even with rates at zero, if willing to deploy Fisher-Friedman monetary stimulus with conviction, buying assets from non-banks and targeting nominal GDP growth of 5pc. But policy defeatism is in the air... The European Central Bank has guaranteed trouble by letting M3 money contract... The ECB's Mario Draghi will cut interest rates to 0.5pc by February, just to keep pace with passive tightening. 
In this small excerpt we find the  ideas of nominal GDP targeting, purchasing assets from the non-bank public (i.e. using the portfolio channel), and the passive tightening of monetary policy. No, the author is not a Market Monetarist blogger.  Rather, this is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a columnist for The Telegraph and fan of Market Monetarist's views.  As Lars Christensen notes, this is not the first time Evans-Pritchard has advocated Market Monetarist views.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Scott Sumner and Russ Roberts Discuss Monetary Policy

Russ Roberts interviews Scott Sumner in the latest EconTalk podcast.  Roberts seems open to Sumner's ideas, which makes me wonder how he reconciles them with his earlier skepticism about there being insufficient aggregate demand. Should Roberts need any more evidence on the importance of nominal income (i.e. aggregate demand) shortages in explaining the ongoing slumps in the United States and the Europe, he should check out this post and this one

P.S. Russ Roberts' recent interview with Alex Tabarrok on innovation was really good too.