“Looking for Wally when there are many Wallies”

That well describes the challenges faced by monetary policymakers according to this piece from Bloomberg Business “Are we tight yet? The Fed´s problem in finding the neutral rate”:

Federal Reserve officials just aren’t sure how much stimulus their zero-interest-rate policy is providing.

At issue is the level of the so-called natural, neutral or equilibrium rate of interest, which is the borrowing cost — adjusted for inflation — that keeps the economy at full employment with stable prices.

Economists from the academic world and even within the central bank are vigorously airing differing views on where the rate lies in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The uncertainty is yet another reason for Fed officials to go slowly as they begin raising interest rates for the first time since 2006.

According to this older piece from Brueguel:

What’s at stake: The natural rate of interest is a key ingredient in the recent discussion of secular stagnation, and more generally in New-Keynesian models of the Great Recession. But the concept is often poorly understood, in part because the term refers to different things for different people.

A couple of examples:

Richard Anderson writes that the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell based his theory on a comparison of the marginal product of capital with the cost of borrowing money. If the money rate of interest was below the natural rate of return on capital, entrepreneurs would borrow at the money rate to purchase capital (equipment and buildings), thereby increasing demand for all types of resources and their prices; the converse would be true if the money rate was greater than the natural rate of return on capital.

Axel Leijonhufvud writes that Erik Lindahl (1939) and Gunnar Myrdal (1939) refined the conceptual apparatus, in particular by introducing the distinction between ex ante plans and ex post realizations and thereby clarifying the relationship between Wicksellian theory and national income analysis.

And there are several others.

In short, the Fed is faced with an “estimation” problem. To make that clear, think of a Taylor-Rule for setting the Fed Fund (FF) rate:

Looking for Wally_1

The circles around the level of “potential output” (y*) and the level of the natural rate (NR) represent the “uncertainty” about their estimated values.

For example, San Francisco Fed senior economist Vasco Cúrdia argued in a paper published earlier this month that the equilibrium rate may have dropped so much that “monetary conditions remain relatively tight despite the near-zero federal funds rate.” He provides a chart which indicates that at present the “natural rate” could be anywhere from -3% to 6%!

Looking for Wally_2

Similar uncertainty surrounds the value of “potential” output.

In essence, facing the “estimation” problem, the situation of monetary policy makers is well captured by this picture!

Looking for Wally_3

An alternative, to try to overcome the “estimation” problem would be for the Fed to try some “experimentation”.

That has happened before. In March 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt decided to “innovate” and free the economy from the “gold standard shackles”, delinking from gold. The effect was immediate as illustrated below.

More recently, in the heights of the Great Inflation, Paul Volcker also decided to innovate:

On Oct. 6, 1979, the Federal Open Market Committee—under the leadership of Paul Volcker—made a decision that would come to be known as a key moment in U.S. economic policymaking, a turning point in the history of the Federal Reserve that would forever alter central banking. And those are the understatements.

A defining moment may shape the direction of an institution for decades to come. In the modern history of the Federal Reserve, the action it took on October 6, 1979, stands out as such a milestone and arguably as a turning point in our nation’s economic history.(A Greenspan)

So, what did the FOMC do? It made a short-term change in the method used to conduct monetary policy, from making adjustments in the federal funds rate to containing growth in the monetary aggregates. (Yes, the Fed now targets the funds rate again—the 1979 change was reversed in 1982—but more on that in a minute.) This meant the Fed would focus on controlling the amount of reserves provided to the banking system, which would ultimately limit the supply of money.

By many, that “experiment” was seen as a failure. Nevertheless, judging by the results it worked, in that inflation was permanently brought down.

In what follows I´ll give a “liberal” interpretation of the experimentation, based on NGDP. The interpretation is not so farfetched because the NGDP targeting concept was extensively discussed both by the Volcker Fed in 1982 and by the Greenspan Fed in 1992.

The first charts show how rising core inflation was the outcome of a rising NGDP growth. The follow up shows that by “downsizing” NGDP growth inflation was brought down.

Looking for Wally_4

This was followed by Greenspan´s “consolidation” in 1987-92 and almost “smooth sailing” from then to the end of his mandate in January 2006. These last two periods came to be known as the “Great Moderation”.

Looking for Wally_5

I interpret the “experiment” as trying to find first the level and then the stable growth path for NGDP. As the next chart shows, by 1987 the Fed had “hit” on the NGDP level and from then onwards NGDP growth rate was stabilized, i.e. kept close to the trend path.

Looking for Wally_6

There were “mistakes” along the way, notably in 1998-03, when NGDP first rose above trend and then fell below, but by the end of 2005, NGDP was back on trend.

Looking for Wally_7

Soon after taking the Fed´s helm, Bernanke allowed NGDP to begin once more to fall below trend. This was magnified in 2008, probably because of the Fed´s exclusive focus on headline inflation, which was being propelled by an oil and commodity price shock. In an environment where the financial system was “wounded”, allowing NGDP to crumble is mortal!

Looking for Wally_8

At present we have the opposite situation of the 1970s. Instead of high/rising inflation due to rising NGDP growth, we have low/falling inflation due to low/falling NGDP growth. So this time around it may be fruitful to devise an NGDP based experiment in reverse. Try to establish a higher level of NGDP that when attained is “consolidated” through a stable NGDP growth rate.

This “experimentation” would be much more helpful than spending time on “estimation” of the “natural rate of interest” or the “potential level of output”.

PS In the comments, bill writes:

“I need to go see the correlation between corporate spreads and NGDP growth. I think those spreads have been widening which I take as a good sign that the market expects less than optimal choices by the Fed in the near future.”

The chart shows how the recent fall in NGDP growth has been accompanied by a rise in less than stellar bond spreads over 10yr treasuries:

Looking for Wally_9


Monetary offset: the matrix

A James Alexander post

Market Monetarists make a big deal about automatic offsetting of fiscal easing by independent central banks with Inflation Targets. There has been a lot of debate about it but not much agreement. I have tried to simplify the picture through this diagram.

The quadrants represent the four combinations of monetary and fiscal policy.

Too Hot

There is widespread and justified fear of the top left quadrant, easy monetary and fiscal policy. It hardly ever ends well. The most extreme case being Germany in 1923 but there are many modern examples. The minor regional spat in the UK over Corbynomics and Peoples’ Quantitative Easing (PQE) shows that the idea of government’s taking control of monetary policy and just printing to pay for spending is still seductively attractive. It will produce higher inflation and higher nominal GDP, but results in a collapse of RGDP as entrepreneurs and wealth flee the country. It would also make accusations that recent conventional QE results in some winners and some losers seem trite, and it is in fact not true. Whereas governments who hyperinflate always reward favoured special interest groups with new money first. Ironically or, rather, tragically, Greece has long had a very famous tradition of paying the army first and police with new funds. The rule still persists today as the end-result of hyperinflation is so often a breakdown of law and order so the government needs to protect itself above all else.

Too Cold

It is hard to believe that any country would voluntarily put itself in the lower right quadrant of having both contractionary monetary and fiscal policy. However, the EuroZone as a whole in 2008 and more seriously in 2011 was firmly in this horrible position. There was one rate rise in 2008  in the midst of collapsing economic expectations and constant calls for fiscal discipline. There were even two rate rises in 2011 in the midst of quite serious reductions in fiscal spending or technically speaking, cyclically adjusted primary balances (CAPB).

Why did they do this? The still largely experimental monetary union of the EuroZone has too many chefs and too diverse a set of economies. Fortunately, this is all water under the bridge now,and policy seems set much better now under Draghi and the current QE. It will still be a painfully slow recovery as in the US because of the Inflation Target Trap (ITT),but it is better than not doing QE.

Dead End

It is also hard to believe any country or currency bloc would voluntarily go into the lower left quadrant, with a fiscal policy set for expansion but a monetary policy set for contraction. Again, we see it too often, This is the classic monetary offset of Scott Sumner whereby fiscal expansion is deliberately sabotaged, or just unconsciously sabotaged, by central banks with inflation targets. Expansionary fiscal policy shifts demand curves to the right but contractionary monetary policy shifts it back down again. Independent central banks do it actively, or in their sleep, or markets think they will and so it happens. Bizarre, but true.


The upper right quadrant is by far the least bad of the four as monetary policy demonstrably offsets contractionary fiscal policy, if such a policy has been decided upon by the politicians. It’s not great but an acceptable way out of recession, once the initial shock is over. Better, of course, not to have the recession in the first place.


Not on the quadrant is the best situation, akin to the Great Moderation, where the real economy grows at a reasonable pace and the central bank maintains stable nominal growth too.

La la land

A mythical section that many Keynesians flirt is one where monetary policy is powerless to be expansionary. The famous Zero Lower Bound. QE and now negative interest rates have demonstrated that in practical terms monetary policy is never out of ammo. Too often central banks are out of the will to use the ammo at their disposal – trapped by Inflation Targets,and Inflation Targets morphing into Inflation Ceilings.


A common criticism comes from Keynesians who suggest darkly that Market Monetarists actually don’t approve of fiscal easing at all. But that is a separate question where there is a range of views. Scott Sumner has made it clear that he thinks fiscal easing via tax cuts, particularly employer payroll taxes, is preferable to additional spending. Some Keynesians agree with this too (eg Ralph Musgrave here). 

I tend to agree with Sumner because I, like most of those in financial markets, do not regard the government as particularly effective at spending.  There are few empirical studies, but plenty of anecdotal evidence, that governments find it hard to deliver large projects, on time, on cost or even at all. Governments find it hard to “pick winners”, and usually just get captured by fast-talking charlatans. Increased spending on the two biggest areas, education and health, may have benefits but there are many arguments about how that  extra spending has a multiplier above one, even in the absence of monetary offseet. Fears centre around “capture” of additional resources by various internal interest groups without any additional output. “Value for money” being the issue as good cost/benefit analysis is rarely undertaken. Increased spending on welfare, ie government transfers, obviously does not boost GDP as it not part of GDP.

To be balanced, the evidence seems to be that tax unfunded, employee-side or business, tax cuts doesn’t lead to a lot of extra growth. Whether that is due to monetary offset coming into play or because the supply side benefits not coming through is unclear.

Is Iceland Krugman’s Inadvertent Case for the Monetary Policy Offset of Fiscal Policy?

A Mark Sadowski post

On May 28, Paul Krugman exclaimed:

 “Back in 2013, when Olivier Blanchard presented a paper on Latvia at the Brookings Panel, many of the participants were bemused: why was the august panel devoting so much time to a country with the population of Brooklyn? But Latvia was, for a time, the great poster child for austerity….And now, as Frances Coppola notes, the era of rapid bounce back has stalled out.”

Krugman proceeds to compare the Real GDP performance of Latvia with that of Iceland. If one clicks on through to Coppola’s post, they learn that Latvia “embarked on a brutal front-loaded fiscal consolidation in 2009, sacking public sector workers, slashing public sector salaries, cutting benefits and raising taxes.”

Then on June 9, Krugman states:

 “I was, I think, one of the first commentators to notice that a funny thing was happening in Iceland: the nation that was supposed to be Ground Zero for financial disaster was actually having a milder crisis than many others, thanks to heterodox policies — debt repudiation, capital controls, and massive devaluation. Now, as Matthew Yglesias points out, Iceland is getting ready to lift the controls, and its experience still looks remarkably good considering the circumstances.

And as Yglesias says, the interesting contrast is with Ireland, now being hailed as a success story for austerity because things eventually stopped getting worse and have lately been getting a bit better. Talk about lowering the bar.”

If one reads the post by Yglesias, they find out that one of the things that Iceland did to achieve this was to “[r]eject [fiscal] austerity.”

Anyone who came away from reading Krugman’s posts, and the posts to which he links, might be forgiven for concluding that Krugman thinks that Iceland, unlike Latvia and Ireland, did not do any fiscal austerity at all.

But Scott knows something is fishy in the state of Iceland, and looks into Krugman’s implied claim.

 “Sorry, but I don’t see it. The crisis caused the debt to balloon, presumably due to the big cost of paying off depositors of failed banks, and the effects of the recession itself. But then Iceland started reducing debt as a share of GDP, from 101% to 86.4% in just three years. That’s much better than the US and UK, which supposedly had austerity. The budget deficit in Iceland was 7.8% of GDP in 2009, but only 0.9% of GDP in 2013–better than the US and far better than the UK. So if the US and UK practiced austerity, what’s so different about Iceland?”

As often is the case, in my opinion Scott is somewhat understating things.

Scott is looking at the “net operating balance” which excludes the “net acquisition of nonfinancial assets”. Including this item results in “net lending”, which is what Europeans call “the deficit”. The net lending of Iceland’s general government fell from 9.7% of GDP in calendar year 2009 to 1.7% of GDP in calendar year 2013, a change of 8.0% of GDP.

Moreover, Iceland’s general government budget ran a surplus equal to 1.8% of GDP in 2014, or a change in fiscal stance since 2009 equal to 11.5% of GDP. This can be found on Table A1 of the April 2015 IMF fiscal Monitor.

And, according to IMF estimates, Iceland’s output gap was actually somewhat larger in 2014 than in 2009. When an economy becomes more depressed it usually results in falling revenues and rising expenditures as a percent of GDP. Not taking this into account might tend to understate the amount of fiscal austerity a country has engaged in (e.g. Greece). Table A3 shows that Iceland’s general government cyclically adjusted balance rose from a deficit of 10.0% of potential GDP in 2009 to a surplus of 2.7% of potential GDP in 2014, or a change of 12.7% of potential GDP.

But even this tends to understate the amount of fiscal austerity that Iceland has engaged in. This is because it includes the increase in spending attributable to rising interest payments on the national debt. To get a proper idea of the amount of fiscal austerity that Iceland has engaged in (i.e. cuts in direct spending and increases in taxes) one has to look at the general government cyclically adjusted primary balance which can be found in Table A4.  Iceland’s general government cyclically adjusted primary balance rose from a deficit of 6.9% of potential GDP in 2009 to a surplus of 6.2% of potential GDP in 2014, or a change of 13.1% of potential GDP.

How does this compare with other countries? The following graph shows the change in general government cyclically adjusted primary balance between 2009 and 2014 for 33 advanced nations, plus the Euro Area as a whole, and the four emerging economies of Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Romania that also happen to be EU members. (It turns out that 2009 is a good base year since the cyclically adjusted primary deficits of most advanced nations peaked that year.)

Sadowski Iceland

By this standard Iceland has done about 30% more austerity than Ireland, over double that of the UK, roughly three and a half times as much as the US, and approximately five and a half times as much as Latvia. The only country that has done more fiscal austerity is Greece.

None of this should come as a surprise. When nearly all the other OECD members were busy implementing fiscal stimuli in early 2009, Iceland (joined only by Ireland) was engaged in a massive fiscal consolidation (see Figure 3.2 and Table 3.1).

In 2012 the Icelandic Finance Ministry, in front of an audience of fellow OECD senior budget officials, patted itself on the back for a job well done.

The scope and scale of Iceland’s fiscal consolidation was truly mind boggling. Real primary expenditures were estimated to fall by 12.7% between 2009 and 2012 (Slide 16). This was accomplished by slashing current expenditures, transfers, and maintenance and investment, and by freezing public sector wages and benefits for a period of four years (Slide 13), during a time when inflation soared due to the 50% depreciation of the króna.

On the revenue side the VAT was raised to 25.5%, which at that time was the highest in the world (Slide 14). The top personal income tax rate was increased from 35.7% to 46.2% (Table 2):

The capital income tax rate was doubled from 10% to 20%, the corporate income tax was increased from 15% to 20%, the social security contribution (SSC) was increased from 5.34% to 8.65% and fishing levies (important in Iceland) were increased. In addition a whole slew of new taxes were imposed (e.g. a net wealth tax, an inheritance tax, a financial activities tax (FAT) etc. etc.)

The bottom line is that Krugman’s implied poster child for anti-fiscal austerity is in reality the advanced world’s second leading practitioner of it. If Iceland’s economy is doing as well as Krugman claims (I have my doubts), then the only real reason it is doing so well (we have yet to see what happens after capital controls are lifted) is relatively steady NGDP growth as demonstrated in Scott’s post.

Thus it seems to me that Krugman’s recent posts extolling the relative economic performance of Iceland are inadvertently strengthening the argument for the ability of monetary policy to wholly offset fiscal policy.