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The Magic Trick of Inflation Targeting

February 9, 2016 Leave a comment

 FT Alphaville‘s Matthew Klein goes back to the issue of financial stability and monetary policy. A recent speech of Bank of Canada’s Timothy Lane is the occasion for Klein to reassess monetary policy before the crisis, when policy makers (in particular he refers to Ben Bernanke, but the Fed chair was in good company) dismissed fears of asset price bubbles, thus failing recognize, and to counter, the buildup of the crisis.

What I find interesting in Lane’s speech is the acknowledgement that monetary policy alone is vastly insufficient to attain the many interrelated objectives of today’s policy makers. This in turn calls for reassessing the drift of academic economists (in the 1990s and 2000s) towards  a vision of the world in which all policy objectives could be attained by “Maestros“, almighty technocrats skillfully using monetary levers to reach multiple objectives at once.

With a few colleagues we recently challenged the “conventional wisdom” that inflation targeting central banks can effectively attain financial stability as well, simply by “leaning against the wind”. We highlighted that this violation of Timbergen’s principle (“one instrument per policy objective”) is allowed by an analytical trick, a “divine coincidence”, buried within the hypotheses of the standard model. Asessing policy analysis in a framework in which low and stable inflation goes hand in hand with low unemployment and stable asset prices, will lead to conclude that (what a surprise!!) targeting inflation helps attaining all these objectives at once. Our work (among others) shows that price and financial stability exhibit no stable correlation; similarly, the debate on the “return of the Phillips Curve” (if ever it left) shows that a tradeoff usually exists between inflation and unemployment objectives. Thus, in the end, inflation targeting is mostly effective in, well… targeting inflation.  There is no magics here. The Consensus buried Timbergen way too soon.

The debate on the effective use of instruments to attain sometimes conflicting objectives is particularly interesting in general and, I argue, relevant for the EMU. As the readers of this blog know, I have been obsessed by the excessive focus of (mainly) European economists and policy makers on monetary policy. Especially in the current situation of liquidity trap, the stubborn refusal to fully deploy fiscal policy can only be explained by ideological anti-Keynesianism.

But as Timothy Lane’s speech suggests, the problem extends beyond the current exceptional circumstances. As normal times will (eventually) resume, we should go back to Timbergen and acknowledge that monetary policy alone cannot cure all ills. Fiscal policy and effective regulation need to be used as aggressively as interest rates and monetary instruments to manage business cycle fluctuation. A trivial and yet often forgotten lesson from old times.

The Quest for Discretionary Fiscal Policy

January 15, 2016 2 comments

It is nice to resume blogging after a quite hectic Fall semester. Things do not seem to have gotten better in the meantime…

The EMU policy debate in the past few months kept revolving around monetary policy. Just this morning I read a Financial Times report on the never ending struggle between hawks and doves within the ECB. I am all for continued monetary stimulus. It cannot hurt. But there is only so much monetary policy can do in a liquidity trap. I said it many times in the past (I am in very good company, by the way), and nothing so far proved me wrong.

A useful reminder of how important fiscal policy is, and therefore of how criminal it is to willingly decide to give it up, comes from a recent piece from Blinder and Zandi, who tried to assess what the US GDP trajectory would have been, had the discretionary policy measures implemented since 2008 not been in place. I made a figure of their counterfactual:

2016_01_FiscalPolicy

It is worth just using their own words:

Without the policy responses of late 2008 and early 2009, we estimate that:

  • The peak-to-trough decline in real gross domestic product (GDP), which was barely over 4%, would have been close to a stunning 14%;
  • The economy would have contracted for more than three years, more than twice as long as it did;
  • More than 17 million jobs would have been lost, about twice the actual number.
  • Unemployment would have peaked at just under 16%, rather than the actual 10%;
  • The budget deficit would have grown to more than 20 percent of GDP, about double its actual peak of 10 percent, topping off at $2.8 trillion in fiscal 2011.
  • Today’s economy might be far weaker than it is — with real GDP in the second quarter of 2015 about $800 billion lower than its actual level, 3.6 million fewer jobs, and unemployment at a still-dizzying 7.6%.

We estimate that, due to the fiscal and financial responses of policymakers (the latter of which includes the Federal Reserve), real GDP was 16.3% higher in 2011 than it would have been. Unemployment was almost seven percentage points lower that year than it would have been, with about 10 million more jobs.

The conclusion I draw is unequivocal: Blinder and Zandi give yet another proof that what made the current recession different from the tragedy of the 1930s it the swift and bold policy reaction.

This of course nothing new. But unfortunately, it sounds completely heretic in European policy circles. In my latest post (internet ages ago) I noticed that how little Mario Draghi’s position on fiscal matters differed from Angela Merkel’s, and in general from the European pre-crisis consensus.

The reader will have noticed that in the figure above I also drew EMU12 real GDP. It did not fall as much as the US no-policy counterfactual (among other things because exports kept us afloat thanks to…the US recovery). But we are today stuck in a semi-permanent state of stagnant growth. EMU12 GDP is today at the same level as the level the US would have had, had their policies been completely inertial. Once again, a visual aid:

2016_01_FiscalPolicy_2

I already showed this figure in the past. On the x-axis you have the output gap, i.e. a measure of how deep in a recession the economy is. On the y-axis you have he fiscal impulse, i.e. a measure of discretionary fiscal policy (net of interest payment and of cyclical adjustment of government deficit). A well functioning fiscal policy would result in a negative correlation: If the economy goes down (negative output gap), fiscal policy is expansionary (positive fiscal impulse). This is what actually happened in 2008-2009 (red series). But then as we know European policy makers succumbed to the fairy tale of expansionary fiscal consolidations, and fiscal policy turned pro-cyclical (yellow series). A persisting output gap was met with fiscal consolidation (improvement in structural fiscal balance).

Overall, policy was neutral. This is consistent with the Berlin View, that  fears discretionary policies as if they were the plague. And explains much of our dismal performance. The fact that we are close to Blinder and Zandi’s “no-policy” scenario is no coincidence at all. Our policy makers should look at their blue line for the US, and realize that we could be around there too, if only they were less stubbornly ideological.

 

Draghi the Fiscal Hawk

October 23, 2015 6 comments

We are becoming accustomed to European policy makers’ schizophrenia, so when yesterday during his press conference Mario Draghi mentioned the consolidating recovery while announcing further easing in December, nobody winced. Draghi’s call for expansionary fiscal policies was instead noticed, and appreciated. I suggest some caution. Let’s look at Draghi’s words:

Fiscal policies should support the economic recovery, while remaining in compliance with the EU’s fiscal rules. Full and consistent implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact is crucial for confidence in our fiscal framework. At the same time, all countries should strive for a growth-friendly composition of fiscal policies.

During the Q&A, the first question was on precisely this point:

Question: If I could ask you to develop the last point that you made. Governor Nowotny last week said that monetary policy may be coming up to its limits and perhaps it was up to fiscal policy to loosen a little bit to provide a bit of accommodation. Could you share your thoughts on this and perhaps even touch on the Italian budget?

(Here is the link to  Austrian Central Bank Governor Nowotny making a strong statement in favour of expansionary fiscal policy). Draghi simply did not answer on fiscal policy (nor on the Italian budget, by the way). The quote is long but worth reading

Draghi: On the first issue, I’m really commenting only on monetary policy, and as we said in the last part of the introductory statement, monetary policy shouldn’t be the only game in town, but this can be viewed in a variety of ways, one of which is the way in which our colleague actually explored in examining the situation, but there are other ways. Like, for example, as we’ve said several times, the structural reforms are essential. Monetary policy is focused on maintaining price stability over the medium term, and its accommodative monetary stance supports economic activity. However, in order to reap the full benefits of our monetary policy measures, other policy areas must contribute decisively. So here we stress the high structural unemployment and the low potential output growth in the euro area as the main situations which we have to address. The ongoing cyclical recovery should be supported by effective structural policies. But there may be other points of view on this. The point is that monetary policy can support and is actually supporting a cyclical economic recovery. We have to address also the structural components of this recovery, so that we can actually move from a cyclical recovery to a structural recovery. Let’s not forget that even before the financial crisis, unemployment has been traditionally very high in the euro area and many of the structural weaknesses have been there before.

Carefully avoiding to mention fiscal policy, when answering a question on fiscal policy, speaks for itself. In fact, saying that “Fiscal policies should support the economic recovery, while remaining in compliance with the EU’s fiscal rules” and putting forward for the n-th time the confidence fairy, amounts to a substantial approval of the policies followed by EMU countries so far. We should stop fooling ourselves: Within the existing rules there is no margin for a meaningful fiscal expansion of the kind invoked by Governor Nowotny. If we look at headline deficit, forecast to be at 2% in 2015, the Maastricht limits leave room for a global fiscal expansion of 1% of GDP, decent but not a game changer (without mentioning the fiscal space of individual countries, very unevenly distributed). And if we look at the main indicator of fiscal effort put forward by the fiscal compact, the cyclical adjusted deficit, the eurozone as a whole should keep its fiscal consolidation effort going, to bring the deficit down from its current level of 0.9% of GDP to the target of 0.5%.

It is no surprise then that the new Italian budget (on which Mario Draghi carefully avoided to comment) is hailed (or decried) as expansionary simply because it slows a little (and just a little) the pace of fiscal consolidation. Within the rules forcefully defended by Draghi, this is the best countries can do. As a side note, I blame the Italian (and the French) government for deciding to play within the existing framework. Bargaining a decimal of deficit here and there will not lift our economies out of their disappointing growth; and more importantly, on a longer term perspective, it will not help advance the debate on the appropriate governance of the eurozone.

In spite of widespread recognition that aggregate demand is too low, Mario Draghi did not move an inch from his previous beliefs: the key for growth is structural reforms, and structural reforms alone. He keeps embracing the Berlin View. The only substantial difference between Draghi and ECB hawks is his belief that, in the current cyclical position, structural reforms should be eased by accommodating monetary policy. This is the only rationale for QE. Is this enough to define him a dove?

EMU Troubles: The Narrow Way Out

September 18, 2015 4 comments

I was asked to write a piece on whether we should continue to study the EMU (my answer is yes. In case you wonder, this is called vested interest). One section of it can be a stand-alone blog post: Here it is, with just a few edits:

While in the late 1980s the consensus among economists and policy makers was that the EMU was not an optimal currency area (De Grauwe, 2006), the choice was made to proceed with the single currency for two essentially opposed reasons: The first, stemming from the Berlin-Brussels Consensus, saw monetary integration, together with the establishment of institutions limiting fiscal and monetary policy activism, as an incentive for pursuing structural reforms and converging towards market efficiency: as the role of macroeconomic management was believed to be limited, giving up monetary policy would impose negligible costs to countries while forcing them, through competition, to remove growth-stifling  obstacles to markets.

Another group of academics and policy makers, while not necessarily subscribing to the Consensus, highlighted the political economy of the single currency: Adopting the euro in a non-optimal currency area would have created the incentives for completing it with a political union: a federation, endowed with a common fiscal policy and capable of implementing the fiscal transfers that are required to avoid divergence. In other words a non-optimal euro was seen as just an intermediate step towards a real United States of Europe. A key argument of the proponents of a federal Europe was, and still is, that fiscal transfers seem unavoidable to ensure economic convergence. A seminal paper by Sala-i-Martin and Sachs (1991) shows that even in the United States, where market flexibility is substantially larger than in the EMU, transfers from booming states to states in crisis account for almost 50% of the reaction to asymmetric shocks.

It is interesting to notice how the hopes of both views were dashed by subsequent events. As the theory of optimal currency areas correctly predicted, the inception of the euro without sufficiently strong correction mechanisms, triggered a divergence between a core, characterized by excess savings and export-led growth, and a periphery that sustained the Eurozone growth through debt-driven (public and private) consumption and investment.

Even before the crisis the federal project failed to make it into the political agenda. The euro came to be seen by the political elites not, as the federalists hoped, as an intermediate step towards closer integration, but rather as the endpoint of the process initiated by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in 1950. The crisis further deepened economic divergence and recrimination, highlighting national self-interest as the driving force of policy makers, and making solidarity an empty word. As we write, the Greek crisis management, the refugee emergency, the centrifugal forces shaking Europe, are seen as a potential threat to the Union, rather than a push for further integration as it happened in the past (Rachman, 2015).

The Consensus partisans won the policy debate. The EMU institutions, banning discretionary policy, reflect their intellectual framework; and the policies followed (more or less willingly) by EMU countries, especially since the crisis, are the logical consequences of the consensus: austerity and structural reforms aimed at increasing competitiveness and reducing the weight of the State in the economy. But while they can rejoice of their victory, Consensus proponents have to deal with the failure of their policies: five years of Berlin View therapy has nearly killed the patient. Peripheral countries’ debt is still unsustainable, growth is nowhere to be seen (including in successful Germany), and social hardship is reaching unbearable levels (Kentikelenis et al., 2014). Coupling austerity with reforms proved to be self-defeating, as the short term recessionary impact on the economy was much larger than expected (Blanchard and Leigh, 2013), and as a consequence the long run benefits failed to materialize (Eggertsson et al., 2014). It is then no surprise that in spite of austerity and reforms, divergence between the core and the periphery of the Eurozone is even larger today than it was in 2007.

The dire state of the Eurozone economy is in some sense the revenge of optimal currency areas theory, with a twist. It appears evident today, but it was clear two decades ago, that market flexibility alone would never suffice to ensure convergence (rather the opposite), so that the Consensus faces a potentially fatal challenge. On the other hand, the federalist project, that was already faltering, seems to have received a fatal blow from the crisis.

The conclusion I draw from these somewhat trivial considerations is that the EMU is walking a fine line. If the federalist project is dead, and if Consensus policies are killing the EMU, what have we left, besides a dissolution of the euro?

I conclude the paper by arguing that two pillars of a new EMU governance/policy are necessary (neither of them in isolation would suffice):

  1. Putting in place any possible surrogate of fiscal transfers, like for example a EU wide unemployment benefit, making sure that it is designed to be politically feasible (i.e. no country is net contributor on average), eurobonds, etc.
  2. Scrapping  the Consensus together with its foundation, the efficient market hypothesis, and head towards real, flexible coordination of (imperfect) macroeconomic policies in order to deal with (imperfect) markets. Government by the rules only works in the ideal neoclassical world.

I know, more easily said than done. But I see no other possibility.

Lessons from Lehman

September 16, 2015 4 comments

Jared Bernstein has a very interesting piece on the lessons we (did not) learn from the great crisis. He basically makes two points:

First, the attitude towards lenders, while somewhat schizophrenic (Bear Sterns, up; Lehman, down. Why? We still don’t know), was forgiving to say the least. in his words, ” Borrowers get austerity, joblessness, and poverty. Lenders get bailouts when credit is scarce and bribes not to lend when it’s too plentiful”. He then argues that both letting lenders fail and bailing them out has large costs, that should be avoided ex ante through better regulation (and we are not there, yet).

Bernstein is perfectly right, but he neglects mentioning a third option, that was advocated at the time, for example by Joe Stiglitz: temporary bank nationalization. The Swedish experience of 1992 proves, according to many (1, 2), that this would have been as effective, while the cost for the taxpayer would have been greatly reduced if not completely eliminated. Public control over the main financial institutions would have guaranteed that the necessary healing could happen without the rents and bonuses that actually went to the very same people who had caused the trouble in the first place. Temporary nationalization, in other words, would have avoided the “Heads I win Tail you lose” feature of financial sector bailouts.

The second point Bernstein makes is that regardless of the strategy chosen to save the financial sector, fiscal policy should have been much more aggressive in fighting the downturn. A quote, again:

But here’s what I do know. Neither bailouts nor allowing insolvent banks to fail will work if, when private sector demand is subsequently tanking, we undercut the use of fiscal policy to make up the difference. In this regard, the clearest lesson of Lehman is not simply that we must regulate financial markets, which is true, nor is it that we must always preserve private credit flows by fully bailing out irresponsible lenders, which contributes to inequality and economic unfairness.

It’s that it takes both monetary and fiscal policy working together to get back to full employment. Restored credit flows alone won’t get people back to work. That’s pure supply-side thinking.

Well, he says it all. What drives me nuts, is that the he complains about the US, THE US, where the Fed showed incredible activism, where the Obama administration voted and implemented a huge stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) just weeks after been sworn in office, while it took us 7 years, to decide to adopt a cumbersome investment plan that will make little or no difference.

Without even mentioning the fact that the whole Greek crisis, since 2010, has been managed with an eye to (mostly German and French) lenders’ needs, rather than to the well-being of European (and in particular Greek) taxpayers.

I really would like to know what would Bernstein say, were he to comment the EMU lessons from the crisis…

And the Winner is (should be)…. Fiscal Policy!

September 4, 2015 2 comments

So, Mario Draghi is disappointed by eurozone growth, and is ready to step up the ECB quantitative easing program. The monetary expansion apparently is not working out as planned.

Big surprise. I am afraid some people do not have access to Wikipedia. If they had, they would read, under “liquidity trap“, the following:

A liquidity trap is a situation, described in Keynesian economics, in which injections of cash into the private banking system by a central bank fail to decrease interest rates and hence make monetary policy ineffective. A liquidity trap is caused when people hoard cash because they expect an adverse event such as deflation, insufficient aggregate demand, or war.

In a liquidity trap the propensity to hoard of the private sector becomes virtually unlimited, so that monetary policy (be it conventional or unconventional) loses traction. It is true that the age of great moderation, and three decades of almighty central bankers had made the concept fade into oblivion. But, since 2008 we were forced to reconsider the effectiveness of monetary policy at the so-called zero lower bound.Or at least we should have…

So, had policy makers taken the time to look at the history of the great depression, or at least to open the Wikipedia entry, they should have learnt that when monetary policy loses traction, the witness in lifting the economy out of the recession, needs to be taken by fiscal policy. In a liquidity trap the winner is fiscal policy.  Or at least it should be. Here is a measure of the fiscal stance, computed as the change in government balance once we exclude cyclical components and interest payments.

2015_09_LiquidityThe vast majority of EMU countries undertook a strong fiscal tightening, regardless of the actual health of their public finances. This generalized austerity, an offspring of the Berlin View, led to our double dip recession, and to further divergence in the eurozone, that would have needed coordinated, not synchronized fiscal policies. Well done guys…

And yet, Mario Draghi is surprised by the impact of QE.

Sand Fiscal Foundations

April 11, 2015 6 comments

Simon Wren-Lewis has an interesting piece on structural deficits. He has issues with Pisani-Ferry’s plea for more stable  structural deficit targets for EU countries. While Pisani-Ferry has a point in invoking more certainty for EU government action, Wren-Lewis argues, rightly so, that stable targets risk creating straitjackets for countries, and that the problem is mostly in the excessively short time horizon of structural deficit targets.

The fact that both Pisani and Wren-Lewis have a point highlights what is in my opinion a structural flaw of EU fiscal governance, namely its reliance on the slippery concept of structural government deficit.

To explain this simply, the idea underlying structural deficit targets is that  not all deficit were created equal. if the government runs a deficit because of adverse cyclical conditions (low growth yields lower tax revenues and larger welfare payements), this deficit is “healthy” because it supports economic activity, and bound to disappear when the economy recovers. As such, governments should not be required to target cyclical deficit, but only  the structural (or cyclically adjusted) deficit, which is precisely the deficit “cleaned” of its cyclical component.

The EU fiscal rule, the Stability Pact and its hardened Fiscal Compact extension, recognizes this distinction, and imposes that governments balance their budget over the cycle, which is yet another definition of structural deficit. This may seem a sensible approach, recognizing, as I just said, that not all deficits were created equal. But in fact sensible it is not.

The problem lies precisely in the word “cleaned” I used above . How do we clean headline deficit from its cyclical component, to compute the structural deficit that should be targeted by governments? This is how we should do it: We compute “potential output”, i.e. the capacity of production of the economy. From that we can obtain the output gap, i.e. the distance of actual output from its potential level; finally, by applying an estimate of how the deficit responds to the output gap, we can clean headline deficit from its cyclical component. Simple, right? Yes, in theory. In practice, we have no way to do it in a sufficiently precise way.

Just consider what the Commission itself states in the page dedicated to its own methodology for measuring potential output. (Their most recent methodological paper can be found here).

Any meaningful analysis of cyclical developments, of medium term growth prospects or of the stance of fiscal and monetary policies are all predicated on either an implicit or explicit assumption concerning the rate of potential output growth. Given the importance of the concept, the measurement of potential output is the subject of contentious and sustained research interest.

All the available methods have “pros” and “cons” and none can unequivocally be declared better than the alternatives in all cases. Thus, what matters is to have a method adapted to the problem under analysis, with well defined limits and, in international comparisons, one that deals identically with all countries. (emphasis is mine)

There is nothing wrong with recognizing that potential output estimates are “contentious”. Contrary to what some Talebans persist to argue, economics is a social science, subject to all the uncertainties, mismeasurements, and ambiguities that are inherently linked to human and social interactions.

Where we have a problem is in using a contentious concept as the foundation for rules in which a zeropointsomething deviation from the target may lead to sanctions and public disapproval by the EU community, with all the potential financial market disruptions associated with it.

This makes the rule non credible, because the contentious estimate may be questioned. More importantly, it leads to what Wren-Lewis fears: countries imposing harsh sacrifices to their people that may turn out to be unwarranted when the estimate is revised.

I am not clear about what fiscal rule we should have in the EU. I actually am not even convinced that we really would need one. What is certain is that two necessary conditions for any rule to be effective, credible, and reasonable are that it is not short -termist (I rejoin Wren-Lewis), and that it is based on indicators that are quantitatively as precise as possible.

The current rule fails on both ground (and don’t get me started on how crazily complicated and arbitrary it grew over time). EU fiscal governance remains founded on sand. And of course, a serious debate on its reform is nowhere to be seen in European policy circles.