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Austerity Forever or 4% Inflation: Your Choice, Britain

September 24, 2014 22 comments

Serious people talk about the public finances facing a dilemma of higher taxes and/or cuts to public services.  When I read those discussions all I can think about is nominal GDP.  As a non-serious blogger, I reside happily in what Flip Chart Rick calls “Fiscal La La Land”, with my simple solution for fiscal salvation: the 4% solution, raising the inflation target.

Raising the inflation target would raise tax revenues, raise the denominator in debt/GDP, and allows cuts to real wages in the public sector without renegotiating (or reneging on) contracts made in nominal terms, and/or mass redundancies, both of which naturally provoke outrage from public sector workers and many consumers of those services.

Of course, we don’t really need higher “inflation”.  And Serious People can’t talk like that, because “inflating away the debt” is unthinkable, it is not virtuous.  The virtuous idea of “deflating up the debt” is curiously absent from modern debate, but that is exactly what the British government has managed to achieve in driving nominal GDP 20% below trend since 2008.

Here is the OBR explaining clearly what really matters – my emphasis applied, and read closely: 

1.14.  If the ballooning of the budget deficit simply reflected the fact that nominal GDP and asset markets had fallen a long way below the paths anticipated for them prior to the crisis – and that in time they could be expected to return to those paths – then there would be no compelling case for a large-scale fiscal consolidation to return the budget deficit to its pre-crisis level, although debt interest costs could be higher for a significant period.

1.15. The case for the consolidation – accepted by both the previous and current Governments, albeit with disagreement about its size and pace – is that the potential level of GDP that the economy can sustain, consistent with meeting the inflation target, is likely to be permanently lower than people thought prior to the crisis. Our latest forecast assumes that potential GDP was around 12 1⁄2 per cent lower than the Budget 2008 forecast by 2012-13 and that it will be 16 per cent below an extrapolation of that forecast by 2018-19. Even the most optimistic external assessments lie well below an extrapolation of the Budget 2008 forecast.

Market monetarists are often perceived as being pseudo-austerians in our opposition to “using fiscal policy”.  I think this is backwards.  I see “fiscal austerity” as a necessary by-product of the failed macro policy regime called inflation targeting, and nominal GDP level targeting is the best way to avoid “fiscal austerity”.

That is exactly what the OBR is saying above.  If NGDP was expected to return to trend there is no case for fiscal consolidation.  A difficult fiscal consolidation is required under inflation targeting when there is a permanent fall in the level of potential GDP.  The current fiscal consolidation is going to continue being “difficult” as long as productivity growth continues to disappoint.  If you want to know how Britain can end up having public finances like Japan, keep watching the productivity figures.

(If this is not intuitive consider what is held constant: if you hold the inflation rate constant, nominal GDP, nominal wages, nominal tax revenues etc must track the path of productivity.  If you hold the path of nominal GDP constant changes to inflation rate reflect changes to productivity growth.)

Right-wingers find this message uncomfortable, but are often the first to champion the idea that “falling prices should reflect rising productivity.”  That’s right.  Specifically, below-trend inflation should reflect above-trend productivity growth, and above-trend inflation should reflect below-trend productivity growth.  That symmetrical outcome is what NGDP targeting aims to provide.  Right now we have below-trend inflation and below-trend productivity growth.  You can’t ignore one half of the equation when it suits you.

The real “austerians” are not the crazy, obsessive monetarists who don’t want to talk about fiscal policy, but the 95% of economists who have a crazy, obsessive belief that 2% inflation targeting approximates optimal macro policy.

The Creditable Dullness of Being Mark Carney

September 12, 2014 16 comments

UK macro is really quite boring at the moment, and I cannot be happier to report that news.  Of course boring events do not get reported as “news”, but that’s why we have blogs.  Sure, there is a lot of debate about Scotland and so on which is related to macroeconomics – but UK macro events are not really capturing the headlines.  UK GDP updates, labour market news… well, there’s a war on… let’s talk about Putin.

Contrast with the Eurozone.  Mario Draghi is exciting!  He is doing things.  Pulling levers!  Fiddling with interest rates.  Easing credit conditions, improving financial conditions.  Trying to get that CPI rate up… maybe.  Oh, and allowing inflation expectations to collapse.  That’s news.

Mark Carney expressed a worthy ambition in his statement to the Treasury Select Committee in 2013, that he “would like to achieve an exit in 2018 that is less newsworthy than my entrance”.  I think he is well on the way to achieving that.  This is how it should be.  Central banking should be boring – nominal stability should be boring.  If the nominal economy is stable, all the “news” will be “real”, in the sense of being supply-side.

For the first time in years I could not be bothered to watch the Inflation Report live last month, but skipping through the recording, the Broadbent, Carney and Shafik show is delightfully dull.  Carney even takes pleasure from his own boringness:

What we’re putting emphasis on, and I know it’s boring and repetitive and it doesn’t clip into a new headline, we’re focusing on the path, the likely path of rates, the limited and gradual adjustment in those rates over the medium term, because of the headwinds that are facing this economy.

And again…

First and foremost it’s about the path for rate increases. I know it’s dull, I know it’s repetitive, but that’s the problem with consistency, it’s dull and repetitive.

Bravo Dr. C, bravo.  And the annoying cricket metaphors are gone too.

This is what short-term inflation expectations (from gilt yields) looked like when UK macro events were newsworthy:

UK Inflation Expectations.  Source: Bank of England

UK RPI Inflation Expectations. Source: Bank of England

Quite the roller-coaster.  I use the 3.5 year measure because it’s the most complete time series.  Note this is RPI not CPI, and RPI at 3% is roughly equivalent to CPI at 2%.

Here is the last year and a bit:

UK Inflation Expectations.  Source: Bank of England

UK RPI Inflation Expectations. Source: Bank of England

What a dull, dull graph.  Carney and the rest of the MPC deserve the highest praise for making macro policy boring.

Inflation, Inflation… There is No Inflation

June 17, 2014 15 comments

I want to clarify since I always feel a bit dirty after doing pessimistic posts about the supply-side:

1) I have very low confidence in any views about “potential output” and whether the productivity data is “correct”.  That is doubly true for my own half-baked views.

2) I think the productivity data should have a 0% weight in setting monetary policy.  Zero, zip, nada, zilch.  And I think nominal wages and/or incomes should have a 100% weight.

It is this second point which made me particularly angry at Carney’s (latest) hawkish move: the new data this year is telling us that nominal wage inflation is at record lows.  Hence we need tighter monetary policy because…?  Well, it’s not clear.

It is half true that the UK is looking more like Japan in 2014 than ever before.  The CPI rate is below target and now looking kind of “low“.  Nominal wage growth is dead.  Tax revenues are sluggish; there is a gigantic fiscal deficit and public sector debt is heading up to the moon.  The currency is looking pretty strong – something which plagued pre-Abe Japan regularly.  Almost everybody is a supply-side pessimist.  Our central bankers are hawkish.  And even Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has been campaigning on the basis that “prices are too high”.  (Maybe Ed Balls read all the Japan ZLB literature sitting on his head?)

But that is not the whole picture.  I still don’t see any convincing sign that nominal GDP growth is slowing from around 4-5% y/y, a rate which should normally be consistent with the Bank’s mandate.  The “low CPI rate” today is as useless a demand-side indicator as the 5.2% CPI rate was in September of 2008 or 2011.  Inflation expectations are very stable and consistent with hitting that 2%.  Confidence indicators are at multi-decade highs.  I think “steady as she goes” would be a pretty reasonable monetary policy if you do want to take the inflation target seriously.

Anyway… 1.5%!!!

Rules, Not Discretion, Foster “Stability”

June 13, 2014 7 comments

Imagine a policymaker, in whatever area of public policy, who acts in a random and unpredictable fashion.  One day they say one thing, the next day they say the complete opposite.  Would you expect this kind of policymaking to encourage “stability” in the way people act, in the way people behave in whatever area that policy covers?

Well, welcome to British monetary policy.

Carney gave a speech last night which created an instant swing in financial markets.  The FTSE 250 (a good indicator for UK domestic prospects) – is off about 2% this morning, though US markets fell late yesterday so we can’t blame the guvnor for all of that.

Carney and friends think that they can use the tools of macropru to create “financial stability”, whatever that means.  They are not even able to formulate and stick to a monetary policy rule which avoids creating “financial instability”.

That should be the simplest thing in the world.  2% IT.  5% NGDPLT.  Rules are simple.  Automatic.  Is the inflation forecast on target?  Below, we loosen; above, we tighten.  Is NGDP on target?  Likewise.

Oh, and the inflation forecast is not on target, by the way.  In the May inflation report the mean, median and mode projections of the CPI rate are below the MPC 2% target in every quarter of the forecast based on market interest rate expectations.  So it’s “obvious” we need tighter monetary policy, and of course central bank governors should go around giving hawkish messages about rate rises.  Governors who know exactly what they are doing, using words which have no doubt been chosen with extreme care, to express the right amount of “nuance”.

And here are four carefully chosen words to strike fear into your heart:

That is why an essential counterpart to our monetary stance is macroprudential vigilance and activism.

“Macroprudential vigilance and activism“?   Dear God.  Osborne, what monster have you created?

Update: Chris Giles also demonstrates the sharp movements in forward rates.  Be in no doubt this was a tightening of policy.

 

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.

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