Tag Archives: Monetary policy

Government Debt Management

In his FT blog, Larry Summers argues for a “quite radical” change in government debt-management. He proposes several lessons:

  • “Debt management is too important to leave to Federal debt managers and certainly to leave to the dealer community. … when interest rates are near zero, it has direct implications for monetary and fiscal policy and economic performance … and … financial stability.”
  • “… it is fairly crazy for the Fed and Treasury, which are supposed to serve the national interest, to pursue diametrically opposed debt-management policies. This is what has happened in recent years, with the Fed seeking to shorten outstanding maturities and the Treasury seeking to term them out.”
  • “Standard discussions of quantitative easing … are intellectually incoherent. It is the total impact of government activities on the stock of debt that the public must hold that should impact on financial markets.”
  • In the US, “the quantity of long-term debt that the markets had to absorb in recent years was well above, rather than below, normal. This suggests that if QE was important in reducing rates or raising asset values it was because of signalling effects … not because of the direct effect of Fed purchases.”
  • “The standard mantra that federal debt-management policies should seek to minimise government borrowing costs is … wrong and incomplete. … it is risk-adjusted expected costs that should be considered. … it is hard to see why the effects of debt policies on levels of demand and on financial stability should be ignored.”
  • “The tax-smoothing aspect, which is central to academic theories of debt policy, is of trivial significance.”
  • Rather than providing opportunities for carry trade, “[t]reasury should reverse the trend towards terming out the debt. Issuing shorter term debt would also help meet private demands for liquid short-term instruments without encouraging risky structures such as banks engaged in maturity transformation.”
  • “Institutional mechanisms should be found to insure that in the future the Fed and Treasury are not pushing debt durations in opposite directions.”

Europe, Monetary Union and Fiscal Union

In a recent blog post, John Cochrane criticizes the common wisdom that, on economic grounds, the Euro was a bad idea for Europe.

He responds to an earlier New York Times article by Greg Mankiw who argued that conventional wisdom: A monetary union requires (1) cross-subsidization/insurance across regions (“fiscal union”) or (2) significant labor mobility across regions. The US has both, Europe does not; Europe therefore needs regional monetary policy instruments and fluctuating exchange rates to dampen the consequences of adverse regional economic shocks.

Cochrane retorts

I am a big euro fan. … I am also a big meter fan. I don’t think each country needs its own measure of length, or to shorten it when local clothiers are having trouble and would like to raise cloth prices.

Cochrane takes aim at the “deeply old-Keynesian” notion that small regions with fewer inhabitants than the Los Angeles metro area (Greece or Ireland say) are exposed to regional “demand” shocks which require regional fiscal or monetary policy responses. In his view, these are small open economies, and demand shocks arise externally.

Cochrane questions the characterization of the US as “fiscal union.”

In the US, we have Federal contributions to social programs such as unemployment insurance. Europe has the common agricultural policy and many other subsidies. We do not have systematic, reliably countercyclical, timely, targeted, and temporary local fiscal stimulus programs. Just how big is the local cyclical variation in state or local level government spending or transfers? (And why does fiscal union matter so much anyway? If you’re a Keynesian, then local borrow and spend fiscal stimulus should be plenty. The union matters only when countries near sovereign default and can’t borrow.) … Yes, both US and Europe have some pretty large cross-subsidies. But most of these are permanent. … Monetary policy has at best short-run effects, so the argument for currency union has to be about local cyclical, recession-related variation in economic fortunes, not permanent transfers.

He also points out that US monetary union far precedes US “fiscal union.” (And he questions the notion that “tight fiscal policy” lies at the root of Greece’s problems and easy monetary policy would have helped.)

Regarding labor mobility, Cochrane emphasizes again that it is cyclical labor mobility which should matter according to the conventional wisdom. He doubts that there are large differences in cyclical labor mobility between the US and Europe.

Not only are the gains from monetary decentralization in Europe small, according to Cochrane, but the benefits from monetary centralization are large, because of gains in credibility.

When Greece and Italy joined the euro, they basically said, defaulting and inflating now will be extremely costly. They were rewarded for the precommitment with very low interest rates. They blew the money, and are now facing the high costs they signed up for. But that just shows how real the precommitment was.

And Cochrane makes the point that policy should address underlying frictions:

The case for separate currencies is to protect the economy from sticky wages, sticky prices, and sticky people. But none of these stickinesses are written in stone. A plausible answer to my question about pre-new deal US is that prices and wages were not sticky (whatever that means) before the era of regulation. Well, that is a loss, and only very imperfectly addressed by artful devaluation of the currency.  Not every block can have its own currency, so local and industry variation within a country remains hobbled by sticky prices, wages, and people. If sticky wages,  prices and people are the central economic problem, we ought to have a lot of policies to unstick them. We do the opposite, and Europe even more so. The very social programs that Greg implicitly praises for fiscal stimulus tie people to location and undermine labor market flexibility.

He concludes:

So I think a lot of the conventional view seems to think implicitly of fairly closed economies, operating in parallel. But Europe’s economies are open. Moreover, the whole point of the eurozone is to open them further. Small open economies are much worse candidates for their own currency.

BIS Warnings

The BIS has published its annual report and warns that the “unthinkable threatens to become routine.” In the press release the Bank argues that

[a]ddressing these deficiencies calls for “a triple rebalancing in national and international policy frameworks”, towards policies that pay greater attention to the medium term, to financial factors and to the costly interplay of domestic-focused decisions. … An essential element of this rebalancing is to rely less on demand management policies and more on structural ones, so as to abandon the debt-fuelled growth model that has acted as a political and social substitute for productivity-enhancing reforms.

The European Court of Justice’s Verdict on OMT

The court ruled (full text) that

[t]his programme for the purchase of government bonds on secondary markets does not exceed the powers of the ECB in relation to monetary policy and does not contravene the prohibition of monetary financing of Member States. …

The Court finds that the OMT programme, in view of its objectives and the instruments provided for achieving them, falls within monetary policy and therefore within the powers of the ESCB. …

The Court also states that the OMT programme does not infringe the principle of proportionality. …

The Court states that this prohibition does not prevent the ESCB from adopting a programme such as the OMT programme and implementing it under conditions which do not result in the ESCB’s intervention having an effect equivalent to that of a direct purchase of government bonds from the public authorities and bodies of the Member States.

Claire Jones reports in the FT.

It is now up to the German Bundesverfassungsgericht to consider the ruling. The German court’s previous considerations can be found here.

 

Rethinking Inflation Targeting

In a Project Syndicate post, Axel Weber argues that inflation targeting needs to be rethought.

Within a complex and constantly evolving economy, a simplistic inflation-targeting framework will not stabilize the value of money. Only an equally complex and highly adaptable monetary-policy approach – one that emphasizes risk management and reliance on policymakers’ judgment, rather than a clear-cut formula – can do that. Such an approach would be less predictable and eliminate forward guidance, thereby discouraging excessive risk-taking and reducing moral hazard. … intermediate targets … could potentially be applied to credit, interest rates, exchange rates, asset and commodity prices, risk premiums, and/or intermediate-goods prices. … Short-term consumer-price stability does not guarantee economic, financial, or monetary stability.

Macroeconomic Policy

In a Vox column, Olivier Blanchard distills ten takeaways from an IMF conference on “Rethinking Macro Policy. Progress or Confusion?’” He lists them under the following headings:

  1. What will be the ‘new normal’?
  2. What the new normal will be matters a lot for policy design
  3. Can we hope to limit systemic financial risk?
  4. Should monetary policy go back to its old ways?
  5. Instrument rules
  6. Macroprudential tools or financial regulation
  7. Should central banks keep their independence?
  8. Little progress on the design of fiscal policy
  9. The complex effects of capital flows
  10. How much can the international monetary system be improved?

Debt Supercycle rather than Secular Stagnation

In a Vox column, Ken Rogoff argues that the world economy experiences a “debt supercycle” rather than the onset of secular stagnation in the West.

Rogoff argues that macroeconomic developments since the financial crisis are in line with historical experience, as documented in his book “This Time is Different” (with Carmen Reinhart): A large fall in output followed by a sluggish recovery; deleveraging; protracted higher unemployment; and a strong rise of the government debt quota are typical after a boom and bust of house prices and credit.

According to Rogoff, policy makers should have implemented more heterodox policies including debt write-downs; bank restructurings coupled with recapitalisations; and temporarily higher inflation targets. Rogoff supports the (in his view, orthodox) fiscal policy responses that were adopted but criticizes that many countries tightened prematurely.

Rogoff acknowledges that secular forces shape the macroeconomy, in particular population ageing; the stabilization of the female labor force participation rate; the growth slowdown in Asia; and the slowdown or acceleration (?) of technological progress. But

[t]he debt supercycle model matches up with a couple of hundred years of experience of similar financial crises. The secular stagnation view does not capture the heart attack the global economy experienced; slow-moving demographics do not explain sharp housing price bubbles and collapses.

Rogoff doesn’t accept low interest rates as an argument in favor of the secular stagnation view. Rather than reflecting demand deficiencies, low interest rates (if measured correctly—Rogoff expects a utility based interest rate measure to be higher) could reflect regulation (favoring low-risk borrowers and “knocking out other potential borrowers who might have competed up rates”) and to some extent central bank policies.

Rogoff argues that the global stock market boom poses a problem for the secular stagnation view. He proposes changed perceptions about the likelihood and cost of extreme events (Barro, Weitzman) as factors to explain both low real interest rates and the stock market boom (after an initial asset price collapse during the crisis).

Regarding policy prescriptions to expand public investment in light of the low interest rates, Rogoff notes that

it is highly superficial and dangerous to argue that debt is basically free. To the extent that low interest rates result from fear of tail risks a la Barro-Weitzman, one has to assume that the government is not itself exposed to the kinds of risks the market is worried about, especially if overall economy-wide debt and pension obligations are near or at historic highs already. [Moreover] one has to worry whether higher government debt will perpetuate the political economy of policies that are helping the government finance debt, but making it more difficult for small businesses and the middle class to obtain credit.

Rogoff considers rising inequality to be problematic (and a possible factor for higher savings rates):

Tax policy should be used to address these secular trends, perhaps starting with higher taxes on urban land, which seems to lie at the root of inequality in wealth trends

He concludes that the case for a debt supercycle is stronger than for secular stagnation:

[T]he US appears to be near the tail end of its leverage cycle, Europe is still deleveraging, while China may be nearing the downside of a leverage cycle.

Harmless Deflation

John Cochrane argues in the Wall Street Journal that deflation fears are overblown. His main points are:

  • According to the Friedman rule, low deflation is beneficial.
  • Sticky wages only cause problems if the deflation rate exceeds the rate of productivity growth. This is not in the cards.
  • Similarly, the debt burden does not rise dramatically when prices fall by only two percent per annum say.
  • Low deflation limits the flexibility of monetary policy but that’s ok.
  • Implosive deflation spirals of the type feared by commentators have never been observed. They cannot happen because investors who hold government bonds would sell the securities (fearing default) and try to buy goods instead.

“Mistakes Made and Lessons (Being) Learned”

In the seventh chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” Peter Fisher argues that the Fed’s mandate should be reviewed:

  • The Fed did not address leverage early enough. In the future, monetary policy should weigh financial stability objectives more strongly—at the cost of employment and inflation objectives.
  • Moral hazard should be addressed before, not during the crisis.
  • “Since the end of the financial crisis, the Fed is making the mistake of conceiving of its mandate over too short—and too narrow—a horizon. This permits the Fed to avoid articulating the difficult intertemporal trade-offs that it is making.”
  • The Fed’s mandate is not crystal clear and has been interpreted differently over the years. In light of the new experiences, it should be clarified or adjusted.

“The Federal Reserve’s Role: Actions Before, During, and After the 2008 Panic in the Historical Context of the Great Contraction”

In chapter six of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” Michael Bordo argues that the Fed misinterpreted the experience of the Great Depression when acting during the financial crisis. Insolvency rather than illiquidity fears were central to the great recession.

“Causes of the Financial Crisis and the Slow Recovery”

In the third chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” John Taylor argues that monetary policy, regulatory policy, and an ad hoc bailout policy caused the financial crisis:

  • Monetary policy was too loose before the crisis.
  • “[R]egulators permitted violations from existing safety and soundness rules.”
  • An “on-again, off-again bailout policy … created more instability.”

The policy responses during the crisis saw more—counter productive—temporary and discretionary measures. Taylor argues that the Reinhart-Rogoff “weak recovery is normal” and the Summers “secular stagnation” views are inconsistent with the data.

Reserve Requirements

Pablo Federico, Carlos Vegh and Guillermo Vuletin discuss legal reserve requirements in an NBER working paper.

Their data set covers 15 industrial and 37 developing countries over the period 1970–2011. Developing countries typically actively manage legal reserve requirements in the sense of adjusting them at least once over the business cycle. Industrialised countries don’t. None of the latter has changed the requirements after 2004, and many have no requirements at all. Among the active countries, most conduct a counter cyclical reserve requirements policy, often in contrast to a more pro cyclical monetary policy along other dimensions.

“Vollgeld, Liquidität und Stabilität (100% Money, Liquidity and Stability),” NZZ, 2014

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, May 12, 2014. PDF. Extended version in Ökonomenstimme, May 13, 2014. HTML.

  • A 100% money regime reduces the risk of credit bubbles, but requires more and better fine-tuning by the central bank.
  • Central banks can already implement higher reserve requirements. If the fact that they don’t reflects policy failure, then the 100% money proposal risks handing more power to one source of the problem.
  • A 100% money regime increases financial stability, at least temporarily, but it forces banks to find new sources of funding and lowers the interest rate for depositors, which is fine.
  • If lender of last resort support by the central bank occurs at too low interest rates then seignorage revenues are privatised and costs socialised under the current regime. Moving to a 100% money regime would help but so would simple Pigouvian taxation.
  • How can a 100% money regime be enforced if market participants end up coordinating to use other securities than deposits as means of payment?
  • More stable deposits in a 100% money regime do not imply a more stable banking system unless other regulation is imposed that completely prevents “maturity transformation.”
  • Aggregate liquidity cannot be created out of nothing, with or without deposit insurance.
  • Societies have to take a stand on whether they want to guarantee broader monetary aggregates than base money. If so, the cost of the guarantee should be privatised. Problems arise if societies pretend not to provide such guarantees but central banks nevertheless feel obliged to step in ex post and market participants are aware of that fact ex ante; bad, self-fulfilling equilibria are the consequence.
  • Commitment on the part of policy makers is key; it requires independent central bankers and regulators.

The Financial Crisis

The Economist’s “schools briefs” on the financial crisis: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Quoting from the first part:

… it is clear the crisis had multiple causes. The most obvious is the financiers themselves—especially the irrationally exuberant Anglo-Saxon sort, who claimed to have found a way to banish risk when in fact they had simply lost track of it. Central bankers and other regulators also bear blame, for it was they who tolerated this folly. The macroeconomic backdrop was important, too. The “Great Moderation”—years of low inflation and stable growth—fostered complacency and risk-taking. A “savings glut” in Asia pushed down global interest rates. Some research also implicates European banks, which borrowed greedily in American money markets before the crisis and used the funds to buy dodgy securities. All these factors came together to foster a surge of debt in what seemed to have become a less risky world.