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.