Blissful Ignorance

Janet Yellen:

And, as ever, the economic outlook is uncertain, and so monetary policy is not on a preset course. Our ability to predict how the federal funds rate will evolve over time is quite limited because monetary policy will need to respond to whatever disturbances may buffet the economy. In addition, the level of short-term interest rates consistent with the dual mandate varies over time in response to shifts in underlying economic conditions that are often evident only in hindsight.

For these reasons, the range of reasonably likely outcomes for the federal funds rate is quite wide–a point illustrated by figure 1 in your handout. The line in the center is the median path for the federal funds rate based on the FOMC’s Summary of Economic Projections in June.1 The shaded region, which is based on the historical accuracy of private and government forecasters, shows a 70 percent probability that the federal funds rate will be between 0 and 3-1/4 percent at the end of next year and between 0 and 4-1/2 percent at the end of 2018.2

The reason for the wide range is that the economy is frequently buffeted by shocks and thus rarely evolves as predicted. When shocks occur and the economic outlook changes, monetary policy needs to adjust. What we do know, however, is that we want a policy toolkit that will allow us to respond to a wide range of possible conditions.

The range of reasonably likely outcomes for the FF rate is so wide it´s useless.

Blissful Ignorance

One property NGDP targeting (in fact NGDP LEVEL Targeting) is that it is the appropriate framework for “all seasons”, i.e. you don´t need to keep tinkering with monetary policy. In addition to keeping the central bank from mishandling supply shocks, it keeps the central bank from generating demand shocks, which throws both inflation and real growth in the same direction, up as during the “Great Inflation” and down as in the “Great Recession”.

We will, we won´t

The Fed may have cried wolf a few too many times recently. But investors should remember that in the original parable, the wolf did show up eventually. The time to start preparing for higher rates is now.

How best to prepare? By level targeting NGDP.

Cry Wolf

Many, however, have gone “stark mad”. Steve Williamson is a case in point:

…if a central bank wants to hit a higher inflation target, it has to set nominal interest rates higher, on average. So, in the course of transitioning to a higher inflation target, the central bank must, at some time, have to raise nominal interest rates in order to produce higher inflation. But then, it must be true that, if the central bank has an inflation target of x%, and inflation is persistently y%, where y < x, then the central bank must raise its nominal interest rate target.

Since the Fed is so keen in doing exactly that, it should try it. If it doesn´t work, just blame St Louis Fed VP Steven Williamson!

Yellen: “We will keep plodding”

In her opening remarks at Jackson Hole:

…my primary message today is that I expect monetary policy will continue to play a vital part in promoting a stable and healthy economy. New policy tools, which helped the Federal Reserve respond to the financial crisis and Great Recession, are likely to remain useful in dealing with future downturns. Additional tools may be needed and will be the subject of research and debate. But even if average interest rates remain lower than in the past, I believe that monetary policy will, under most conditions, be able to respond effectively.

Unfortunately, that is not happening. As illustrated in the charts, monetary policy has been overly tight, with a brief respite.

NGDP Saga

Why they don´t perceive this and make a real effort to overhaul the monetary policy framework is beyond comprehension!

Frustrating

The Jackson Hole 2016 gathering just started. The Conference Title is Designing Resilient Monetary Policy Frameworks for the Future.

However, the session directly linked to the Conference Theme – Evaluating Alternative Monetary Frameworks – is a letdown of massive proportions.

 

10:55 a.m. Evaluating Alternative Monetary Frameworks 
Author: Ulrich Bindseil 
Head of Directorate General Market Operations
European Central Bank
Discussants: Jean-Pierre Danthine
President
Paris School of Economics
Simon Potter 
Executive Vice President, Markets Group Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Ulrich Bindseil: 12 years ago he wrote…ending:

If the Fed would have been fully independent from the US Government at least directly after WW1, it would probably have had far less incentives to deny the validity of well established central bank technique, namely that short term interest rates are the operational target of monetary policy.”

Jean Pierre is a Finance person and Simon Potter is an econometrician (time series) and forecaster.

Hope I get pie in the face!

While they discuss about economy “overheating”, the economy is “overcooling”

Stan Fischer:

The Federal Reserve’s governors are debating what is going on in the U.S. economy and how to set policy, the Fed’s No. 2 official said on Thursday.

“The issue of overheating of the economy is being discussed within the Fed board,” Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer told a room of labor activists who met with Fed officials to press them not to raise interest rates.

“Everything that’s being argued here is being argued in the board as well,” said Fischer.

But reality “stinks”!

Fischer-Overheating

If 2% is not enough, don´t double it

According to the Economist:

…How might these problems be fixed? One possibility is simply to raise the inflation target to, say, 4%. Credibly enacted, that ought to alleviate the risk of impotence. If investors and consumers believe inflation will reach 4%, nominal interest rates should eventually rise to 5% or so even if real rates stay low. But rich-world central banks have undershot their targets for so long they may struggle to persuade the public to expect higher inflation. And a higher target would still leave central banks with a dilemma when economic growth and inflation diverge. Neither would it make up for big misses.

A more radical option is to move away from targeting inflation altogether. Many economists (and this newspaper) see advantages in targeting the level of nominal GDP, the total amount of spending in the economy before adjusting for inflation. A nominal-GDP target would allow for temporary variations in inflation. Downturns would be tempered by an expectation of protracted stimulus later on to make up lost ground. In better times, a rise in real GDP would provide the lion’s share of the required nominal-GDP growth and inflation could drift lower.

Tyler Cowen and Fiat-Money Independent Central Banks

A Benjamin Cole post

The globe’s major fiat-money central banks are considered “independent,” those being the Bank of Japan, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank.

The ostensible reason for the independent status is so that central bankers can “do the right thing” and not cave in to political or popular demands, almost invariably described as “printing money.”

But if inflation everywhere and always is a monetary phenomenon, then so too must be disinflation and deflation. After obtaining the former in the 1980-1990, the major central banks have obtained the latter in the late 2000s over much of the globe, and the U.S. is but one recession away from deflation also.

Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen, the brilliant blogging polymath from George Mason, recently posited it is politics and the labor class that is pushing the Fed to chronic tight-money, in his recent and welcome endorsement of nominal GDP level targeting by central banks, or NGDPLT.

By Cowen’s reckoning, the central banks are independent, except they are cowed by a working class that does not want to see wage cuts through inflation.

Does the AFL-CIO stand athwart of Fed desires for NGDPLT, and the attendant moderate rates of inflation?

Rather…

I rather suspect it is strident right-wing academia, think-tankers, punditry and bloggers, and related party politics that have contorted an eagerly compliant Fed into a supine posture now conducive to a deflationary perma-recession.

It is rare to see true happiness in this world, but the beam on a central banker’s face when announcing a rate-hike is the best place to look.

The Fed has leaned to deflation for decades, and is on the doorstep now. It is benighted, second-rate mythology that the Fed has been “easy” or “held rates low.” If the Fed has been easy, how to explain the 35-year decline in inflation and interest rates?

Conclusion

Glad we are to accept a Tyler Cowen into the NGDPLT camp. Maybe for politesse, Cowen must identify the anti-inflation zealots as laborites. So be it.

There is still a real danger to American prosperity, even if the Fed adopts NGDPLT, and that is the Fedsters will select a straitjacket tight version of NGDPLT, or chronically miss LT on the low side, as they do with the IT (inflation targeting).

The idea of an independent fiat-money central bank may be proving a bad one. In the modern-era, such institutions generally asphyxiate economic growth.

If interest rates “disappear”, Central Banks lose their relevance!

In Central Bankers’ Main Challenge: Staying Relevant – Decline in the natural interest rate gives authorities less ammunition to counteract economic shocks, Grep Ip writes:

When central bankers gather this week in Jackson Hole, Wyo., they will be consumed not with some pressing crisis in the global economy but by an existential threat to their relevance.

The threat stems from the realization that the sluggish economic growth that has prevailed since 2009 may be here to stay. If so, then so are today’s low interest rates.

For more than 8 years they´ve been shooting themselves in the foot, refusing to abandon their inflation target framework and the associated interest rate targeting (which now they desperately want to “normalize”).

Charming!

Contra Nick Xenophon´s idea

The Conversation is critical, but for the wrong reasons:

In the revolving door of economic ideas, the old can be suddenly new again. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon resurrected one such idea this week. He said the Reserve Bank of Australia should replace its inflation target of 2-3% per annum with a target of nominal GDP growth of around 5.5% per annum.

………………………………………………………………………………………..

One big problem with Xenophon’s idea is that the theory does not fit the times. It is not the right policy for today.

Energy prices are not going up; they have been falling and are now flat. Yes, electricity prices have been going through the roof in South Australia and to a lesser extent elsewhere. But oil prices have been falling or flat over recent years, and this has a more pervasive effect than government bungling of the electricity market.

So output growth and inflation are not moving in opposite directions – both have fallen in recent years. Inflation is now below the bottom of the RBA’s target zone of 2-3% on any of the alternative measures.

The RBA, along with most central banks of advanced countries, would actually like to see more inflation, not less. Annual output growth is struggling to reach 3%, which is below the long run average of 3.5%. Hence nominal GDP growth is below the 5.5% long-run average that Xenophon would target. So whether the RBA targets inflation or nominal GDP growth doesn’t matter – the policy would be the same – that is, stimulate spending by lowering interest rates, which is exactly what it has been doing.

Why does The Conversation think NGDP targeting is only useful when (real) growth and inflation are moving in opposite directions? That is, when the economy is buffeted by a supply shock. Inflation targeting entices the wrong policy from the central bank, “instructing” it to tighten. NGDP targeting “instructs” the central bank to “ignore it” – good move.

But, more generally, NGDP targeting (in fact NGDP LEVEL Targeting) is the appropriate framework for “all seasons”. In addition to keeping the central bank from mishandling supply shocks, it keeps the central bank from generating demand shocks, which throws both inflation and real growth in the same direction, up as during the “Great Inflation” and down as in the “Great Recession”.

The last highlighted sentence from The Conversation is just confirmation that what is required is a LEVEL target. For example, if the central bank adopted a Price Level Target it would not be in the “low inflation-low real growth” it is in today. The downside of PLT is that just as in the case of IT, the central bank would be tricked into taking the wrong action when the economy is hit by supply shocks.

Another wrong take (among others) of The Conversation is this:

Another downside is that although nominal GDP growth would be more stable, inflation would tend to be more volatile. Inflation could jump up and down, but as long as output growth moved in the opposite direction the RBA would do nothing to dampen the volatility in inflation. Volatile inflation increases the uncertainty about future prices, which inhibits investment spending by firms and households.

As the “experience” of many countries (US,UK, Australia, for example) with implicit NGDP Level Targeting showed, what NGDP-LT provides is Nominal Stability. As Nick Xenophon puts in his “comments on critics” (see comment here):

How does someone who starts a business – taking out a loan and hiring staff – in expectation of 7 per cent a year growth in nominal spending deal with a sudden drop in spending to 2 per cent? Not well, I reckon.

The Fed Is Artificially Budging Rates—But Higher Not Lower Does Fiat-Money Central Banking Lead to Deflation?

A Benjamin Cole post

At the always interesting Alt-M website is a post by highly regarded monetary scholar Gerald P. O’Driscoll, pondering if the Fed can raise rates even if it wants to, whether Fed presently is artificially pumping up short-term rates.

O’Driscoll notes that today 20 central banks globally have negative interest rates in place.  Were now an activist Fed to jack-up the Fed funds rate and the interest on excess reserves (IOER) by another 25 basis points, the spread between U.S. rates and global rates would widen even more.

O’Driscoll points out such an action will attract capital to the U.S., thus raising the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar, slowing domestic business activity when the economy barely growing anyway.

Moreover, the Fed appears to be struggling to even keep short-term rates as high as they are. As O’Driscoll notes, in December 2015 the Fed raised interest on excess reserves from 25 to 50 basis points and also posted an offering rate of 25 basis points on reverse repurchase agreements. The Fed’s mysterious reverse-repo program has expanded to $321 billion at recent count, as it tries to sop up enough cash to prevent even lower rates.

But the Fed is battling the tide. O’Driscoll notes interest rates on short-term treasury bills (4 weeks) have recently traded down close to or even below 25 basis points.

Of course, long-term rates are primarily set by market forces, and 10-year Treasuries have been yielding near record-lows, now offering about 1.50% interest.

“There are real questions as to whether further hikes in what are administered (not market) interest rates will move market interest rates as desired. We have no experience on which to base such a forecast,” intones O’Driscoll.

There is much to admire in O’Driscoll’s blogging, but perhaps I quibble with his non-conclusion, which is that, “Fed policymakers are still mostly stuck in closed economy thinking. But, so, too, are most advocates of monetary reform. New thinking is needed all around.”

Well, bring it on, I say. Like what?

The Alt-M Outlook

In the past O’Driscoll has called for free banking, or a gold standard, and noted that modern-day central banks are aligned with nationalist malignancies of financing wars, empire-building, welfare-ism, oppressive state seizure of private assets and inflation.

Maybe all true in the past, but what about inflation since 1982 or so?

In the last 35 years the direction of interest rates and inflation internationally has been down, under globalist central-bank management. Indeed, much of the planet is now in deflation, and the U.S. but one recession away from joining the world. As Milton Friedman noted, you don’t get to chronically low interest rates through chronically easy money. For 30 years we have heard doom from inflation-mongers, and now we have global deflation.

If central banks have an inflationist agenda, they are even more incompetent than we suspect. The admirable Alt-M team still discusses fiat-money central banking as having statist-inflationary agenda. Yet the Alt-M perspective appears out of date, by a few decades.

Conclusion

Maybe free banking or a gold standard will work better than globalist central banking.

But unlike O’Driscoll, I think the problem is globalist fiat-money central bankers are obsessed with inflation and not economic growth. The ECB, for example, appears intent on crushing nations, not promoting statism.

Indeed, for now it would be better if a modern-day Korekiyo Takahashi (Japan’s central banker who ended the Great Depression on the islands) seized the Fed and sent in the helicopters. Darken the skies, and don’t stop until we see robust real growth and inflation north of 4%.

Of course, Market Monetarists contend the practical path forward is central-bank NGDPLT. It may actually happen.

The Alt-M crowd offers plenty of food for thought, but perhaps some updating is needed.