Tag Archives: Fiscal monetary policy interaction

Monetary Policy, the NK Model, and Humility

In an NBER working paper John Cochrane concludes that

… we have been guilty of playing with too-complex models when we don’t really understand basics, such as stability, determinacy, and the frictionless limit. …

Given the state of actual agreed-on knowledge, central banks’ proclamations of detailed technocratic ability to manipulate delicate frictions is laughable. Figure 10 shows in chart form the Rube-Goldberg list of mechanisms the ECB thinks it understands and can manipulate. Central bankers who think they have any idea how all these boxes and arrows work, and how to manipulate them, should reread Bob’s unsung classic “on a report to the OECD” Lucas (1979) once a week. A little humility would do us all good.

The SNB’s Financial Result, Currency Reserves, and Distribution Reserve

How are SNB profits and losses distributed and what issues are debated?

Annual Result Funds two “Reserves”

The annual result (Jahresergebnis) of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is split into two parts. The first part funds “provisions for currency reserves” (Zuweisungen an Rückstellungen für Währungsreserven) which are meant to provide a buffer against future losses on the SNB’s asset positions. The second part funds current and future profit distributions to the Confederation and cantons (Ausschüttungen an Bund und Kantone) and dividend payments to SNB shareholders. The ad hoc announcement regarding the SNB’s 2021 annual result (English, German) provides an overview.

Allocation Rules

The SNB decides how the annual result is split, subject to some guidance in the National Bank Law (NBG, English, German, e.g., Art. 30 (1) and Art. 42 (2d) NBG). In practice the SNB follows a mechanical rule to determine the provisions for currency reserves. This rule operates “on the basis of double the average nominal GDP growth rate over the previous five years” or “10% of the provisions at the end of the previous year,” whatever yields higher provisions (source).

How the second part of the annual result is split between current and future distributions is governed by an agreement between the SNB and the Federal Department of Finance (English, German). The law prescribes that the “[t]he Department and the National Bank shall, for a specified period of time, agree on the amount of the annual profit distribution with the aim of smoothing these distributions in the medium term” (31(2) NBG). In practice the SNB and the Federal Department of Finance have frequently revised the agreement. This reflected the SNB’s rapidly growing balance sheet and larger profits.

The current agreement determines the profit distributions and dividends to shareholders as follows: Define the “distributable annual result” (Ausschüttbares Jahresergebnis) as the annual result net of the allocation to provisions for currency reserves. The distribution reserve (Ausschüttungsreserve), a liability item in the SNB’s balance sheet, amounts to the cumulative past distributable annual results, net of the payments to Confederation, cantons and shareholders. The sum of distribution reserve and distributable annual result yields the “net profit” (Bilanzgewinn). When the net profit is negative the agreement prescribes zero distributions to the Confederation and the cantons. When it is positive the agreement prescribes distributions that rise up to CHF 6 billion, depending on the size of net profits. Under no circumstances must distributions be so high as to directly imply that the distribution reserve becomes negative.

Discussion

That the SNB determines how the annual result is split certainly makes sense. After all the SNB bears responsibility for monetary policy and thus needs to be able to employ its balance sheet as far as this has current and future monetary policy implications. It is doubtful, however, that the mechanical rule the SNB follows adequately reflects foreign exchange and investment risks as well as monetary policy needs going forward. Preferably, the SNB should determine the adequate provisions based on an analysis of risks and monetary policy needs and communicate its analysis and conclusions to the public (see my proposal from February 2021). In June 2021 the SNB Observatory made a similar proposal, arguing that the SNB should “[d]etermine a target ratio of provisions-to-balance sheet or provisions-to-foreign investments. Provisions should not be accumulated beyond this point.” More specifically, the SNB Observatory criticized that the SNB never actually uses the provisions to cover losses when they occur; it proposed that the SNB “[u]se the provisions for foreign investments to cover losses when they occur. Replenish provisions with profits of subsequent years.”

The procedure to determine the split between current and future distributions is rather inflexible and thus requires frequent adjustment if the SNB’s balance sheet changes. The fact that the SNB smoothes payouts from the distribution reserve (at too low a rate according to the SNB Observatory) suggests a lack of trust in the ability of decision makers at the federal and cantonal level to responsibly manage the funds received from the SNB. I find this questionable (see my comments from February 2021) but I realize that the law does require some degree of smoothing.

Finally, many of the political discussions surrounding the amount of SNB distributions are misguided. The debate neglects that profit distributions do not significantly alter the net worth of the Confederation or the cantons. After all, SNB profit distributions are not transfers from a third party—they just swap one asset item in the balance sheets of the Confederation and cantons against another one, like dividend payouts of a firm. The main effect of distributions is to temporarily relax restrictions such as the debt brake (see my explanations with links to further analysis); that might be the reason why some politicians and voters like them.

Details

  • The agreement between the SNB and the Federal Department of Finance states that “[t]he non-distributed amount of the annual result is allocated to this [distribution] reserve, and any shortfall for a distribution is drawn from it.” I think it should read “[t]he non-distributed amount of the annual result net of provisions for currency reserves is allocated …”
  • Per January 2022 the provisions for currency reserves amounted to CHF 95 billion. The distribution reserve amounted to CHF 103 billion.
  • Between 2005 and 2020 the return rates on SNB investments never fell below -6% (source).
  • As of mid 2022 the return rate appears to be on the order of -8% (balance sheet length approximately CHF 1 000 billion, first-quarter loss CHF 33 billion (source), prospective second-quarter loss 50 billion).
  • Swiss net foreign assets amount to roughly CHF 600 billion.

Updates: Minor editorial changes, 29 July.

SNB Profit Distributions

The Federal Department of Finance and the SNB have agreed on a new scheme for the distribution of SNB profits. Agreement for the period 2020-2025, Explanations. Some comments in German (also available as PDF):

Profitieren Bund und Kantone finanziell von den höheren SNB-Ausschüttungen?

  • Höhere Gewinnausschüttungen in der Gegenwart bedingen tiefere in der Zukunft.
  • In erster Näherung bleibt das Nettovermögen von Bund und Kantonen unverändert, denn es berücksichtigt auch den Wert der zukünftigen Ansprüche gegenüber der SNB.
  • Siehe z.B. „Die Volkswirtschaft“ 8-9 2020, HTML.

Warum dann die positiven Reaktionen bei Vertretern von Bund und Kantonen?

  • Politiker/Wähler orientieren sich an den ausgewiesenen Schulden des Staates. Höhere Ausschüttungen ermöglichen eine tiefere Schuldenaufnahme. Daher die Reaktionen.
  • Relevanter als ausgewiesene Schulden ist das Nettovermögen. Dieses wird von Ausschüttungen (in erster Näherung) nicht beeinflusst.

Was ist die primäre Wirkung höherer Ausschüttungen?

  • Die Schuldenbremse wird in der Gegenwart gelockert und in der Zukunft angezogen.
  • Falls die Schuldenbremse bindet, erhöhen frühere, höhere Ausschüttungen den Spielraum für staatliche Ausgaben in der Gegenwart, aber nicht in der Zukunft.
  • Hohe Ausschüttungen könnten über ihre Wirkung auf das Eigenkapital der SNB auch deren geldpolitische Entscheide beeinflussen.

Wie ist die neue Gewinnausschüttungsformel ökonomisch zu bewerten?

  • Ausschüttungen sollten die Geldpolitik nicht konterkarieren.
  • Die Geldpolitik setzt Bilanzlänge und -struktur der SNB als Instrumente ein. Ihre Glaubwürdigkeit kann vom Eigenkapital der SNB abhängen.
  • Demnach müssten Ausschüttungen von Bilanzlänge, -struktur und Eigenkapital der SNB abhängen. Nicht vom Gewinn des Vorjahres.

Wie ist die neue Gewinnausschüttungsformel politökonomisch zu bewerten?

  • Problematisch ist, dass der Eindruck entstehen kann, alle paar Jahre würde unter politischem Druck um eine neue Formel gefeilscht. Die Bindung an eine sinnvolle Regel würde diesem Eindruck entgegenwirken.
  • Gleichzeitig reduziert die neue Formel den politischen Druck. Sie signalisiert die Bereitschaft der SNB zur Diskussion.

Wie könnte ein alternatives Ausschüttungsmodell aussehen?

  • Die SNB erklärt periodisch, welche Bilanzlänge und -struktur sie zur Erfüllung ihrer Aufgaben benötigt. Sie stellt sich der Kritik, entscheidet aber eigenverantwortlich.
  • Ausschüttungen sind nicht zweckgebunden. Dadurch wird vermieden, dass sich Interessengruppen bilden, die systematisch auf höhere Ausschüttungen drängen.

Welches Grundproblem bliebe bestehen?

  • Eine ökonomisch begründete Ausschüttungspolitik führt zu fluktuierenden Ausschüttungen. Diese können die Schuldenbremse konterkarieren.
  • Glättet die SNB hingegen ohne geldpolitische Notwendigkeit ihre Ausschüttungen, masst sie sich eine Kontrolle der Fiskalpolitik an, die ausserhalb ihres Aufgabenbereichs liegt.

Comments on Geneva Report 23

Panel with Elga Bartsch, Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Giancarlo Corsetti, Olivier Garnier, and Charles Wyplosz. Moderated by Tobias Broer.

Elga Bartsch, Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Giancarlo Corsetti, Xavier Debrun: Geneva Report 23 | It’s All in the Mix: How Monetary and Fiscal policies Can Work or Fail Together.

Event at PSE.

My comments on the report.

“Dirk Niepelt im swissinfo.ch-Gespräch (Interview with Dirk Niepelt),” swissinfo, 2020

Swissinfo, December 14, 2020. HTML, podcast.

We talk about CBDC, the Swiss National Bank, whether CBDC would render it easier to implement helicopter drops, and how central bank profits should be distributed.

“Unabhängigkeit der Nationalbank (Independence of the SNB),” FuW, 2020

Finanz und Wirtschaft, July 25, 2020. PDF.

The Swiss National Bank—yes, the Swiss one—feels it must remind politicians of its independence. Parliamentarians from left to right (!) voice demands. To shrink the SNB’s balance sheet? No, for more central bank profits to be distributed sooner rather than later.

I discuss misconceptions, possible motivations, and a constructive response. «The best way to defend the independence of a central bank is never to exercise it.»

“Monetäre Staatsfinanzierung mit Folgen (Monetary Financing of Government),” Die Volkswirtschaft, 2020

Die Volkswirtschaft, July 24 2020. PDF.

Clarifying the connections between outright monetary financing, QE, the distribution of seignorage profits, the relationship between fiscal and monetary policy, and central bank independence.

Abstract:

Wenn Parlamentarier höhere Gewinnausschüttungen der Nationalbank fordern, Kritiker im
Euroraum mehr «Quantitative Easing» oder Helikoptergeld verlangen und andere Stimmen
monetäre Staatsfinanzierung monieren, dann steht die Beziehung zwischen Geld- und
Fiskalpolitik zur Debatte. Eine Auslegeordnung.

“Wenn die Notenbank den Staat finanziert (When the Central Bank Finances the State),” FAS, 2020

FAS, 31 May 2020. PDF.

Monetary deficit financing is the norm—after all, central banks distribute their profits. Monetary financing occurs in the context of regular open market operations and QE and, hyper charged, with helicopter drops. The question is not whether monetary policy should finance the government, but why it does so, and to what extent. Fiscal and monetary policy are inherently connected; what constitutes monetary policy is defined by objectives.