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From “Too Much Uncertainty” to “Not Enough Uncertainty”?

May 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Way waaaaay back in the dark days of 2012, which was, ooh, decades ago, Mervyn King used to complain about uncertainty.  “Uncertainty” was King’s “excuse” for really bad stuff happening which wise central bankers can’t do anything about.  Like real GDP going the wrong way.  This is my favourite collection of Merv quotes from his infamous “black clouds” speech:

… a large black cloud of uncertainty hanging over not only the euro area but our economy too …
… Complete uncertainty means that the risks to prospective investments … are simply impossible to quantify …
… the black cloud of uncertainty and higher bank funding costs …
… The paralysing effect of uncertainty, with consumers and businesses holding back from commitments to spending …
… the black cloud of uncertainty has created extreme private sector risk aversion …
… private sector spending is depressed by extreme uncertainty …
… during the present period of heightened uncertainty …

Fast forward to 2014, and this is the “new normal” for central banking, as expressed by Charlie Bean:

Another reason the exit [from the ZLB] may be bumpy stems from the starting point. Implied volatilities in many financial markets have been at historically low levels for some time now (Chart 7). Together with low safe interest rates in the advanced economies, that has underpinned a renewed search for yield and encouraged carry trades. Taken in isolation, this is eerily reminiscent of what happened in the run-up to the crisis. Episodes like the ‘taper tantrum’, which produced a short-lived bout of volatility but no major disruption may also be contributing to a sense of complacency and an underestimation of market risk by investors.

It is inevitable that at some stage market perceptions of uncertainty will revert to more normal levels. That is likely to be associated with falls in risky asset prices and could be prompted by developments in the Ukraine, the fault lines in the Chinese financial sector, monetary policy exit in the advanced economies, or something else. But it will surely come at some point.

In 2014 wise central bankers are now worried that there is not enough uncertainty – there may be that dreaded “search for yield” – or, as those cheeky capitalists like to call it, “higher investment”.  This is a bad thing, because, well, there might be “bubbles” even if we can’t define what a bubble is or identify one until after the fact.  And we’ll apply the usual post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, because there are things which went up in 2007 which also went down in 2008, ergo those things caused the recession in 2008.  Even though central banks’ own models tell us that financial crises and recessions have a single common cause: bad monetary policy.

We can be sure of only one thing: whatever happens, central bankers will be quick to tell us it wasn’t their fault.

 

Categories: Bank of England

UK 2014 Q1 Nominal GDP

May 22, 2014 1 comment

Never mind about voting, it’s NGDP day.  Usual caveat first: the quarter-on-quarter growth rates for nominal GDP tend to be unreliable in early estimates.  That said, the data in the second estimate of GDP for 2014 Q1 has nominal GDP growth slightly slower than in the second half of 2013, but still respectable at a 4.9% growth rate.  Here’s the table for q/q growth at annual rates:

Year Nominal
GDP
GDP
Deflator
Real
GDP
Nominal
GVA
GVA
Deflator
2013 Q1 3.2 1.5 1.4 3.9 2.3
2013 Q2 0.4 -2.7 3.1 -0.3 -3.1
2013 Q3 6.0 2.3 3.4 5.0 1.2
2013 Q4 6.6 3.8 2.7 7.0 4.3
2014 Q1 4.9 1.5 3.2 5.9 2.7

2013 Q2 still stands out as particularly weird there, with strong RGDP but massive deflation.  It seems possible the ONS has struggled to balance income, spending and output measures in that quarter, with timing of bonuses a distortion due to the higher rate tax cut kicking in.

The chart below shows year-on-year growth, switching to GVA to factor out the impact of indirect tax changes on prices:

Source: ONS KGM2 ,  KGM6 ,  KGN3

Source: ONS KGM2, KGM6, KGN3

Real output continues to track growth of nominal demand very closely; the broadest measure of “inflation” across all of GDP (the implied deflator) continues to run below 2% year-on-year even as demand growth has picked up.

Categories: Data, UK GDP

Bank Bites Back

May 15, 2014 3 comments

When oil prices went up in 2008 the media blamed the Bank of England’s monetary policy.  When VAT rose in 2010 and 2011, the media again blamed the Bank for being too inflationary.  When the price of bonds rose in 2012, the media blamed the Bank (QE) for hurting virtuous savers with low interest rates.  When the price of equities rose, the media blamed the Bank (again, QE) for making the rich richer – and hence everybody else poorer (yes, British progressives even brought “fairness” into monetary policy).  When the price of London houses rose in 2014… well, guess who gets the flak?

So I enjoyed Carney and co sticking two fingers up at the Inflation Report today.  At the press conference we again saw a long stream of questions about housing from the hawkish journalists who mostly live in, wait… where is it… let me guess… Aberystwyth?  Carney and co did a great job of throwing them off, here is a choice quote from the Guv’nor:

Guy Faulconbridge, Reuters: Perhaps it’s a stupid question, I didn’t quite understand – do you see signs of a bubble in the housing market in London?  And another stupid question probably, but you’ve been in your job nearly a year, what have you found most difficult about doing your job? Thank you very much.

Mark Carney: Answering stupid questions Guy, that’s the most difficult thing.

You probably didn’t understand on the first question because at no point in the Report or in the press conference did we talk about housing in a specific city, a specific borough in a city, because we make policy for the United Kingdom.

Quite right.  Spencer Dale even debunked “Londonism“:

The other question is – is, independent of that, do increases in house prices have a material impact on economic activity? And in the past one can observe quite a strong correlation between increases in the house price and economic activity.

The question is, is it house prices themselves that are driving that or is it something else? And we published some work in that box which tried to get at that by looking at, as house prices move, do the consumption behaviour of say renters, people who rent houses, change very differently to those who own their house? And if it was house prices themselves, you’d expect to see very different movements.

In fact, in terms of the cross section of data, you don’t see very different movements. So we don’t think house price movements in themselves are a big driver of activity. And so when we’re thinking about the macroeconomic implications it’s the transactions, which is where we think is the main driver.

This is not a post about monetary policy and that’s something we should celebrate.  The Riksbank have made household debt a focus of Swedish monetary policy and it is proving a terrible policy failure.  The ECB is emulating the Bank of Japan.  The MPC has declined the opportunity to screw up UK monetary policy and is rightly ignoring changes in London house prices.  Bravo!

Categories: Bank of England

Liquidate the Rentiers… on a Cross of Low Inflation?

May 12, 2014 4 comments

State-of-the-art monetary theory in 1968 from Milton Friedman:

Paradoxically, the monetary authority could assure low nominal rates of interest-but to do so it would have to start out in what seems like the opposite direction, by engaging in a deflationary monetary policy. Similarly, it could assure high nominal interest rates by engaging in an inflationary policy and accepting a temporary movement in interest rates in the opposite direction.

State-of-the art monetary nonsense in 2014 from Martin Wolf:

High-income economies have had ultra-cheap money for more than five years. Japan has lived with it for almost 20.

From this weak start Mr. Wolf goes on to conclude that it is necessary either to have “big government” or to “wipe out the rentiers”:

Low interest rates are certainly unpopular, particularly with cautious rentiers. But cautious rentiers no longer serve a useful economic purpose. What is needed instead are genuinely risk-taking investors. In their absence, governments need to use their balance sheets to build productive assets. There is little sign that they will. If so, central banks will be driven towards cheap money. Get used to it: this will endure.

Cheap money?  If only.  Meanwhile, Gavyn Davies is worried about those naughty capitalists taking, erm, excessive risks:

The case for macro prudential controls is straightforward [1]. During economic upswings, the behaviour of the financial system can become destabilising. Banks’ balance sheets are flattered by the expanding economy and low interest rates, so credit supply expands aggressively. This fuels the boom until risk taking becomes excessive, and even a moderate rise in interest rates produces a financial crash. Direct intervention in the financial system to head off these problems early, through increased capital and liquidity standards, seems to be justified.

So concerned is Mr. Davies that we might have a recession…

While an interest rate rise might be compared to firing a shotgun, macro prudential measures might be closer to a rifle shot. However, the separability of the two weapons raises many issues and difficulties. Both may need to be fired simultaneously in order to get the job done.

… that we might need a little bit of a recession to keep those risk-takers under control.  What a fine mess this is.

HT: Marcus Nunes

Categories: History, Monetary Policy

“Londonism”, or Macro Models Based on Reasoning from Changes in London House Prices

May 12, 2014 5 comments

We need an name for a macro model in which changes in house prices drive changes in aggregate demand.  I am going to suggest “Londonism” because this idea seems to be a metropolitan obsession, though better suggestions would be welcome.  I will continue be snarky, annoying, and contrarian in my neutral slash positive view of rising nominal asset prices.

This is the Guardian from June 2008, when the UK was already in recession, though we didn’t have the GDP figures to show that yet:

Amid City fears that the Bank of England’s decision yesterday to peg the cost of borrowing at 5% could push the economy into recession, the Halifax, Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, reported that the cost of a home fell by 2.4% in May, wiping almost £5,000 off the cost of an average house.

Back in 2008 those naive City economists didn’t realise that when house prices fall, people can buy more houses.  That’s how it works, right?  Falling prices mean housing is “more affordable”, rising prices mean “less affordable” houses?  No?  Am I missing something?

Remember also that monetary policy was “doing all it could” to prevent the global financial crisis from escalating into a UK recession, but yes, Bank Rate continued to be pegged at 5% all the way to October that year.  The Graun continue:

Last month’s decline marked the seventh fall in nine months. In the past three months, prices have dropped by 6.1% – faster than at any time since the bank began publishing data in 1983. The biggest fall during the downturn of the early 1990s was the 3.8% decline between August and October 1992, a period which included Black Wednesday.

Wait, there is some link between recessions and changes in house prices?  What can it be?   Find me a Londonist… Mr. Bootle?

Roger Bootle, economic adviser to Deloitte, said the 8% drop in house prices since their peak was likely to turn into a fall of 20% by the end of 2009, with knock-on effects on consumer spending. “The UK economy is on course for a very deep and prolonged economic downturn, if not an outright recession,” he added.

Ah, there we go.  “Knock-on effects” from falling house prices.  Mr. Bootle was right about the “outright recession”, but I’d suggest the Bank of England is right about the cause.

Categories: History, Monetary Policy

What is UK Monetary Policy?

May 9, 2014 5 comments

Chris Giles argues that the Bank of England is guilty of “institutional dovishness”.   Simon Wren-Lewis is not so sure.  I think there are two very different questions which we care about here:

1) Are the goals of UK monetary policy “appropriate”?

2) Has the Bank of England set the “tools” of policy (e.g. QE, interest rates) correctly so as to achieve those goals?

I am not sure if Chris is arguing about (1) or (2).  The discretionary approach to the labour market data could be taken as evidence the MPC is changing the goals of policy in a more expansionary direction.  But the question of whether the Bank should raise rates now is more about (2).

Mr. Giles also says the Bank is “institutionally biased against higher interest rates”.  “The Bank” has argued, very forcefully, in favour of 2% inflation targeting.  I count in particular Mervyn King and Charles Goodhart.  I think it is correct to argue, hence, that the Bank is institutionally biased against higher (nominal) interest rates – but that is a thoroughly hawkish bias.  After all, the most hawkish central bank in the world (the Bank of Japan) also has the best record in the world for keeping nominal rates very low.

I would argue that the important institutional bias at the Bank is against monetary policy rules and in favour of discretion.  The independence of the “nine wise bankers” of the MPC to “make the right decisions” is what is being protected above all else.  The uncertainty around the “appropriate goals” for UK monetary policy is extremely helpful in protecting that independence.

Are the Bank targeting 2% inflation on the two year horizon?   Is it one year?  Or three years?   What about the “output gap”, or “spare capacity”?  Is it acceptable for the Bank’s forecast to show they expect to persistently undershoot the 2% target, as in February 2009 when the median CPI rate averaged just 0.8% across the forecast period?   If so, would it not also be acceptable for them to set policy such that they persistently overshoot the target?  What is the “institutional bias” shown in the February 2014 forecasts, where the median CPI rate across the forecast period averages… 1.9%?

Simon makes the case that deflation in Sweden shows what happens if monetary policy is tightened unnecessarily.  This gives too much ground to the hawks.  Was UK monetary policy “too tight” in, say, November 2008 or June 2010?  It is easy for the MPC to deflect this charge following the same logic as Simon: inflation was above target, and mostly stayed above target.  And then we can argue till the sun goes down about the output gap, because nobody “knows” for sure.

We are left with this vacuum of policy.  Is it right for the Bank to keep rates at 0.5% in March 2014?  I agree with Simon that it is right beyond any reasonable doubt.  The MPC should continue to duck and weave until inflation (by which I mean nominal GDP) “takes off”, and the more the chattering classes get annoyed by London house prices, the better.  It’s also right to dump the inflation target in favour of a clear rules-based policy regime.  Other opinions are also available.

House Prices, Monetary Policy, and Kafka

May 2, 2014 6 comments

We are going to have to watch these guys.  This is MPC member Jon Cunliffe:

The self-reinforcing link between property prices, the financial system and the broader economy that operate within the stress test have been key to dynamics in previous UK downturns. As well as lowering homeowners’ wealth, falls in house prices reduce their collateral and so their access to credit. This tends to drag on consumption. Preliminary Bank analysis suggests the most highly mortgaged households have tended to cut their consumption very materially in times of economic stress.  And investment in the construction of homes and other property has had a tendency to fall sharply in downturns, with this component of spending accounting for around half of the peak to trough variation in GDP growth across the 2008-9 recession. This combination of lower property prices and a fall in spending across the economy, can, through a rise in defaults, damage banks and contribute to a tightening in credit conditions, creating a further drag on economic activity.

It is Kafkaesque, this world of monetary policy.  On Tuesday the Bank of England describes clearly how the Bank of England can, by running a tight monetary policy, cause a recession and falls in nominal asset prices.  On Thursday the Bank of England is worried about how the economy might unavoidably fall into a recession when there is an unexpected fall in nominal asset prices.

I was half-joking when I suggested that we drop the CPI target in favour of a house price target.  But I am half-serious.  If the MPC thinks that stability of house price inflation is a necessary condition for stability of the real economy then they should clearly lay out the model in which that is true.  Then HM Treasury should consider whether the MPC should target the CPIH, or whatever, so that there is an appropriate focus on stabilising nominal house price growth.  Haldane is apparently going to push for a CPIH target.

Here is a really funny thing.  If the UK had applied a 2% CPIH target for the last five years we would have needed an easier monetary policy, because the CPIH rate has been around 0.2-0.3% below the CPI rate.  And an easier monetary policy would mean higher nominal asset prices.  Thus, if the MPC had been targeting house prices, it’s easy to end up with the conclusion that house price inflation has been too low.

(Because the CPI and CPIH and not equivalent this is really an arbitrary counter-factual; maybe a 1.5% CPIH target should replace the 2% CPI target… or maybe we should stop targeting “inflation” altogether.)

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