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ECB: One Size Fits None

March 31, 2014 15 comments

Eurostat just released its flash estimate for inflation in the Eurozone: 0.5% headline, and 0.8% core. We now await comments from ECB officials, ahead of next Thursday’s meeting, saying that everything is under control.

Just this morning, Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times rightly said that EU central bankers should talk less and act more. Münchau also argues that quantitative easing is the only option. A bold one, I would add in light of todays’ deflation inflation data. Just a few months ago, in September 2013, Bruegel estimated the ECB interest rate to be broadly in line with Eurozone average macroeconomic conditions (though, interestingly, they also highlighted that it was unfit to most countries taken individually).

In just a few months, things changed drastically. While unemployment remained more or less constant since last July, inflation kept decelerating until today’s very worrisome levels. I very quickly extended the Bruegel exercise to encompass the latest data (they stopped at July 2013). I computed the target rate as they do as

Target=1+1.5\pi_{core}-1(u-\overline{u}).

(if you don’t like the choice of parameters, go ask the Bruegel guys. I have no problem with these). The computation gives the following:

EMU_Taylor_March_2014

Using headline inflation, as the ECB often claims to be doing, would of course give even lower target rates. As official data on unemployment stop at January 2014, the two last points are computed with alternative hypotheses of unemployment: either at its January rate (12.6%) or at the average 2013 rate (12%). But these are just details…

So, in addition to being unfit for individual countries, the ECB stance is now unfit to the Eurozone as a whole. And of course, a negative target rate can only mean, as Münchau forcefully argues, that the ECB needs to get its act together and put together a credible and significant quantitative easing program.

Two more remarks:

  • A minor one (back of  the envelope) remark is that given a core inflation level of 0.8%, the current ECB rate of 0.25%, is compatible with an unemployment gap of 1.95%. Meaning that the current ECB rate would be appropriate if natural/structural unemployment was 10.65% (for the calculation above I took the value of 9.1% from the OECD), or if current unemployment was 11.5%.
  • The second, somewhat related but more important to my sense, is that it is hard to accept as “natural” an unemployment rate of 9-10%. If the target unemployment rate were at 6-7%, everything we read and discuss on the ECB excessively restrictive stance would be significantly more appropriate. And if the problem is too low potential growth, well then let’s find a way to increase it

Overheat to Raise Potential Growth?

March 19, 2014 3 comments

Update, March 20th: Speaking of ideological biases concerning inflation, Paul Krugman nails it, as usual.

On today’s Financial Times, Phillip Hildebrand gives yet another proof of unwarranted inflation terror. His argument is not new: In spite of the consensus on a weak recovery, the US economy may be close to its potential , so that further monetary stimulus would eventually be inflationary.

He then deflects (?) the objection that decreasing unemployment reflects decreasing labour force participation rather than new employment, by suggesting that it is hard to know how many of the 13 millions jobs missing are structural, i.e.not linked to the crisis. I think it is worth quoting him, because otherwise it would be hard to believe:

However, an increasingly vocal group of observers, including within the Fed, posits that more of the fall in the participation rate appears to have been structural than cyclical, and it was even predictable – the result of factors such as an ageing workforce and the effect of technology on jobs.

(the emphasis is mine). Now look at this figure, quickly produced from FRED data: Read more

Mario Draghi is a Lonely Man

January 10, 2014 6 comments

I just read an interesting piece by Nicolò Cavalli on the ECB and deflationary risks in the eurozone. The piece is in Italian, but here is a quick summary:

  • Persisting high unemployment, coupled with inflation well below the 2% target, put deflation at the top of the list of ECB priorities.
  • Mario Draghi was adamant that monetary policy will remain loose for the foreseeable horizon.
  • As we are in a liquidity trap, the effect of quantitative easing on economic activity has been limited (in the US, UK and EMU alike).
  • Then Nicolò quotes studies on quantitative easing in the UK, and notices that, like the Bank of England, the ECB faces additional difficulties, linked to the distributive effects of accommodating monetary policy:
    • Liquidity injections inflate asset prices, thus increasing financial wealth, and the value of large public companies.
    • Higher asset prices increase the opportunity costs of lending for financial institutions, that find it more convenient to invest on stock markets. This perpetuates the credit crunch.
    • Finally, low economic activity and asset price inflation depress investment, productivity and wages, thus feeding the vicious circle of deflation.

Nicolò concludes that debt monetization seems to be the only way out for the ECB. I agree, but I don’t want to focus on this. Read more

Of Actions and Words in Frankfurt

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Last Thursday the ECB cut rates, somewhat unexpectedly. This shows that it takes the risk of deflation very seriously. Good news, I’d say. But unfortunately, press conferences follow ECB Council meetings. And I say unfortunately, because Mr Draghi words often fail to match his actions. Here is what he said on Thursday (I could not resist adding some bold here and there):

If you look at the euro area from a distance, you see that the fundamentals in this area are probably the strongest in the world. This is the area that has the lowest budget deficit in the world. Our aggregate public deficit is actually a small surplus. We have a small primary surplus of 0.7%, compared with, I think, a deficit of 6 or 7% deficit in US, – 6 I think – and 8 % in Japan. This is the area with the highest current account surplus. And it is also the area, as we said before, with one of the lowest – if not the lowest – inflation rate.

Fascinating. Truly fascinating. I will pass on the fact that one of the strong “fundamentals” Mr Draghi quotes, low inflation, is actually the main source of worry for economists and policymakers worldwide, including the ECB, that had to rush into a rate cut that was not planned at least until December! I will also pass on his praise of high current account surpluses while the Commission itself is considering opening an infraction procedure against Germany, for perpetuating an important source of imbalances within the eurozone and worldwide.

No, what I find more shocking is the list of fundamentals Draghi gives: public debt and deficit; inflation; current account balance. Now, it dates back a little, but I remember all of those, in Econ 101, to be defined as instruments of economic policy, supposed to serve the final objectives of growth and employment. It is true that we do rather well in what Draghi calls fundamentals, but I continue preferring to call instruments. Look at this table:

PostDraghiObjectivesFig1
I have reported, for ease of comparison, data from the IMF World Economic Outlook (October 2013), therefore they are not the latest (quarterly or monthly) data. Also, I have highlighted in red the worst performer, and in green the best. And boy, Draghi is right! (Notice incidentally that eurozone inflation was 2.5 percent on average in 2012. With the latest data at 0.7 percent, this suggests that  we are running, not walking, towards deflation.)

But if we look at the supposed objectives of economic policy (how would Draghi call these?), the picture changes, quite a bit:

PostDraghiObjectivesFig2

No other major advanced economy is doing nearly as badly as the eurozone in terms of unemployment and GDP. But according to the ECB President we have “the strongest fundamentals in the world”. Does this means that Draghi did not take Econ 101? No, I know for sure that he did take it, and  he actually had excellent mentors. To understand Draghi’s claim, it may be useful to read his whole sentence. After arguing that the eurozone has strong fundamentals he goes on:

This does not translate automatically into a galloping recovery. But, actually, it gives you the fundamentals upon which you can pursue the right economic policies. Structural reforms are the necessary and sufficient condition for this to happen. In the absence of that, unfortunately, we are going to stay here for quite a long time.

Here is the answer. The only and one answer. Focusing on instruments instead of targets is the strategy of those who do not believe that a role exists for active economic policies. It is a pity that one of these guys is heading the second most important central bank of the world. And it is paradoxically reassuring that the situation is currently so bad that he is forced to abandon his creed and implement active monetary policies.

Advice for the next episodes: praise Mario Draghi actions, and avoid reading the transcripts of his press conferences.

Cockroach Ideas and Weak Arguments

April 10, 2013 1 comment

Helene Mees in a Project Syndicate Comment weighs into the dispute between Paul Krugman and the Commission officials, siding with Rehn and his people.
Mees’ criticism of Krugman is two-sided. First, she argues, Krugman omits to say that the OMTs program is subject to heavy conditionality, and that the signature of the fiscal compact was a necessary precondition for the adoption of the program. I don’t get it. The ECB is very vocal on austerity and on structural reforms, and it is clear that the OMTs program was adopted only at the very last minute, facing the perspective of eurozone collapse. A number of economists, including myself, welcomed the OMTs while criticizing the heavy conditionality attached to it. The very fact that the OMTs was reluctantly adopted shows that even austerity partisans cannot deny the fact that the EMU is desperately lacking a proper lender of last resort, of which the OMT is a pale surrogate. The more non-Keynesian institutions are forced to adopt Keynesian solutions, the more Krugman’s point is vindicated. I fail to see how the opposite could be true. Read more

Fear and Confusion in Frankfurt

April 4, 2013 3 comments

I must say I am puzzled by today’s decision of the ECB to leave rates unchanged. It simply does not fit with what Mario Draghi said during the press conference. Let me quote him.

Inflation expectations for the euro area continue to be firmly anchored in line with our aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term. At the same time, weak economic activity has extended into the early part of the year and a gradual recovery is projected for the second half of this year, subject to downside risks. Against this overall background our monetary policy stance will remain accommodative for as long as needed.

If words actually mean what they mean, Draghi informed us that (a) inflation, and inflation expectations, are in line with forecasts and objectives; (b) at the same time, economic activity is weaker than expected, and the future recovery is at risk; (c) the ECB is willing to have an accommodative monetary stance.
Two considerations: first, the king is naked; it was obvious from the very beginning that the recovery in the second half of the year was not in the cards. I already discussed the systematic bias in official forecasts. It turns out that simply saying to markets that things will go well, is not sufficient to make them act accordingly. The confidence fairy, as Krugman calls it, is nowhere to be seen. I would add that this systematic bias risks making EMU institutions less credible, and hence further weaken their capacity to anchor private sectors’ expectations…
And then the puzzle: if inflation is under control, and if economic activity is weak, and if the ECB deems accommodation to be needed, why, why on earth are rates kept constant? Should we remind to Mario Draghi what is written in article 127 of the Lisbon Treaty?

The primary objective of the European System of Central Banks, hereinafter referred to as “ESCB”, shall be to maintain price stability. Without prejudice to the objective of price stability, the ESCB shall support the general economic policies in the Union with a view to contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the Union as laid down in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union.

Among the general policies that the ECB should support there is growth and employment. And lowering the rates today would certainly not lead to “prejudice to the objective of price stability”

Why is the ECB so frightened to send the signal to markets that it is ready to boost economic activity? Is there an hidden agenda we are unaware of?

Leaks in the Dam?

March 28, 2013 1 comment

Interesting things happened this morning. I assisted to one of the presentations of the OECD interim assessment. There is nothing very new in the assessment, that concerning the eurozone, can be summarized as follows

  • The outlook remains negative (while the rest of the OECD countries are doing better)
  • There is still room for monetary accommodation
  • This monetary accommodation may not benefit the countries that need it more, because the transmission mechanism of monetary policy is still not fully working
  • The Cyprus incident shows that there is a desperate (this I added) need of a fully fledged banking union
  • EMU countries need to continue on the path of fiscal stabilization, even if automatic stabilizers should be allowed to fully play their role, even at the price of missing nominal targets Read more

End of The Tunnel?

January 30, 2013 3 comments

There are signs of optimism around. Cautiously, policy makers and commentators start discussing the shape (and the fragility) of the future recovery.  Martin Wolf on the Financial Times already speculates on the timing of reversal to a normal state of affairs. Wolf is rightly worried by the temptation to reverse policies too fast, a mistake we made already at the end of 2009, when stimulus plans were reversed into consolidation far too soon.

As a rule of thumb, I’d argue that exceptional involvement of governments in the economy should stop when the private sector is ready to take the witness. Stimulus plans and monetary easing should be rolled back once private spending resumes (or is ready to resume), and when the credit market is sufficiently loose. So the question is, how does private sector behaviour fit, within this moderate optimistic mood? Not too well I am afraid… Read More

Does Central Bank Independence Need Inflation Targeting?

January 22, 2013 1 comment

Two articles on today’s Financial Times  puzzle me. The first (Weidmann warns of currency war risk) offers yet another example of how economic analysis sometimes leaves the way to ideological beliefs. The Bundesbank’s president argues (as he already did in the past) that giving up inflation targeting hampers central bank independence. How? Why? He does not bother explaining.

What I think he has in mind is that once the objective of the central bank goes beyond strict inflation targeting, monetary policy needs an arbitrage between often conflicting objectives (typically unemployment and inflation). It is the essence of the dual mandate. This of course moves monetary policy out of the realm of technocratic choice, and makes it a political institution (Stephen King explains it nicely). I would argue that this is normal once we abandon the ideal-type of frictionless neoclassical economics, and we accept that we may have a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.  But this is not the issue here. The issue, and the puzzle, is why transforming the choice from technocratic to political, should necessarily lead to giving up independence. Read more