Archive for the Category Monetary Policy


Beckworth interviews Hamilton

David Beckworth recently interviewed Jim Hamilton on a wide variety of topics, including energy and monetary policy.  At one point they discussed Hamilton’s recent research on the impact of QE.  Hamilton discussed the March 18, 2009 QE announcement, which is sometimes cited as evidence that QE was effective.  On the day of the announcement, 10-year bond yields plunged from roughly 3.0% to 2.5%.

Hamilton pointed out that the market response doesn’t necessarily indicate that rates fell due to monetary expansion.  An alternative interpretation is that the announcement led traders to re-evaluate their view of the economy, perceiving the Fed to have relevant non-public information. Hamilton suggested that investors may have thought:

What do they know that I didn’t?  And, maybe the economy is in worse shape than I thought.

If that were the case, then you’d expect other markets to reflect this bearish perception.  In fact, exactly the opposite occurred.  Here is the NYT, from March 18, 2009:

The Federal Reserve sharply stepped up its efforts to bolster the economy on Wednesday, announcing that it would pump an extra $1 trillion into the financial system by purchasing Treasury bonds and mortgage securities. . . .

Investors responded with surprise and enthusiasm. The Dow Jones industrial average, which had been down about 50 points just before the announcement, jumped immediately and ended the day up almost 91 points at 7,486.58. Yields on long-term Treasury bonds dropped markedly, and analysts predicted that interest rates on fixed-rate mortgages would soon drop below 5 percent.

This suggests that markets treated the QE announcement as an expansionary monetary policy, which sharply lowered long term bond yields and also raised equity prices by roughly 2%.

On the other hand, I do agree with Hamilton’s claim that the big decline in interest rates (throughout the world) during the Great Recession was mostly due to other factors such as slow growth, not QE.

PS.  Let me reiterate that QE is not a policy, it’s a tool.  Thus QE is not the way to prevent demand shortfalls.  To do that you need a sound monetary policy, preferably NGDPLT.  Then QE can be used as a tool to implement that policy, in the unlikely event it is needed.

Tate Lacey on the new Fed leadership

Tate Lacey has a interesting piece over at Alt-M, which suggests that the new Fed vice chair might be amenable to NGDPLT:

Clarida now seems predisposed to three views about monetary policy that could significantly influence the Fed’s actions going forward:

1. That a central bank fully committed to reaching a nominal target is superior to one focused on mechanical operations.

2. That employing forward guidance is indeed an effective tool for conducting monetary policy.

3. That level targeting can make up for past errors in monetary policy in a way that growth rate targeting cannot.

Combined, I think these views point to Clarida being more amenable to a nominal GDP target than even he may presently admit. After all, nominal GDP level targeting requires two things of a central bank to work in practice: first a central bank must credibly pledge to keep nominal GDP growing along a stable trend line and then it must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to achieve that level of nominal growth.

Clarida has already expressed the importance of both of these elements. In addition, he has repeatedly shown a willingness to let his thinking evolve when presented with new information. Therefore, he may yet be persuaded on the shortcomings of price level targeting in favor of a superior option.

Lacey acknowledges that this is speculative, but he is right to emphasize these aspects of Richard Clarida’s thinking on monetary policy.

This is also important, and it’s the step that many modern central banks are reluctant to take:

However, the second, subtle point in his framework that should not be ignored is that Clarida recommends the central bank fully commit to an outcome rather than announce various mechanical steps.

PS.  The Hypermind NGDP contract for 2017-2018 just completed and growth came in at 4.8%. I was given the following information:

362 traders participated in this contest, and 224 (62%) made a virtual profit. This means 224 contest winners have earned a share anywhere from $4 to $1,038 from the $35,000 prize pool.

The 2018-19 NGDP futures contract is trading at 4.5%, which suggests to me that policy may be a tad too expansionary, but is still basically on course.

The market price has not been very volatile, which is perhaps disappointing if the market is viewed as a scientific experiment, but very positive if viewed as a technique for making NGDP more stable.

The government is beginning to see the light

Before getting into the main topic of the post, I’d like to point out that Mercatus has recently published a new primer on NGDP targeting, as well as futures targeting, written by Ethan Roberts and myself. I recommend it to people who want a short introduction to the concept:

The first section will clearly define monetary policy, describe the two main methods that central banks have traditionally used to carry out policy, and analyze the weaknesses of these methods. Later sections will articulate what NGDP is and how a policy of NGDP targeting works. Subsequent sections will list the most common criticisms of NGDP targeting and explain why these criticisms are misguided, and they will present arguments in support of the policy. Finally, the primer will provide specific recommendations for how to move from the current system to a system based on NGDP futures targeting.

I have a relatively low opinion of government, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see an outstanding report on monetary policy by the Joint Economic Committee.  You really need to read the entire thing, or at least the entire chapter entitled “Macroeconomic Outlook” from page 51 to 94, but here are a few excerpts:

The Report and Federal Reserve officials find low inflation rates “puzzling,” especially given the low unemployment rates. The “Phillips Curve” theory of price inflation posits that low unemployment rates drive up wages, which leads firms to raise prices to offset rising costs. The Committee Majority explores alternative explanations for below-target inflation. Notably, monetary policy may not have been as “accommodative” as commonly perceived.

The report then began describing policy in 2008, which was aimed at rescuing banks, not the broader economy:

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond senior economist Robert Hetzel succinctly described the unusual credit policy:

Policies to stimulate aggregate demand by augmenting financial intermediation provided an extraordinary experiment with credit policy as opposed to monetary policy.

The Fed bought financial instruments from particular credit markets segments to direct liquidity toward them, which had the effect of injecting reserves into the banking system. This action alone would incidentally ease monetary conditions, but the Fed then sold Treasury securities from its portfolio to withdraw those reserves from the banking system (called “sterilization”), thereby restricting nominal spending growth.

I also get cited a few times:

Furthermore, despite the low level of the Fed’s fed funds rate target, monetary policy arguably remained relatively tight, as monetary economist Scott Sumner notes in the context of a 2003 Ben Bernanke speech:

Bernanke (2003) was also skeptical of the claim that low interest rates represent easy money:

[Bernanke:] As emphasized by [Milton] Friedman… nominal interest rates are not good indicators of the stance of monetary policy…The real short-term interest rate… 55 is also imperfect…Ultimately, it appears, one can check to see if an economy has a stable monetary background only by looking at macroeconomic indicators such as nominal GDP growth and inflation.

Ironically, by this criterion, monetary policy during the 2008-13 was the tightest since Herbert Hoover was President.

Then it discusses why various QE programs had little impact:

The Fed was clear from the outset that it would undo its LSAPs eventually (i.e., remove from circulation the money it created in the future). The temporary nature of the policy discouraged banks from issuing more long-term loans. Alternatively, as economist Tim Duy pointed out during the inception of the Fed’s first LSAP program:

Pay close attention to Bernanke’s insistence that the Fed’s liquidity programs are intended to be unwound. If policymakers truly intend a policy of quantitative easing to boost inflation expectations, these are exactly the wrong words to say. Any successful policy of quantitative easing would depend upon a credible commitment to a permanent increase in the money supply. Bernanke is making the opposite commitment—a commitment to contract the money supply in the future.

Sumner (2010), Beckworth (2017), and Krugman (2018) observe similar issues. Furthermore as Sumner (2010), Feldstein (2013), Beckworth (2017), Selgin (2017), and Ireland (2018) note, payment of IOER at rates competitive with market rates led banks to hoard the reserve, which contributed at least partially to the collapse of the money multiplier (Figure 2-3).

And it wasn’t just right of center economists that objected to IOR:

Regarding IOER, former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder advised in 2012:

I’ve been urging on the Fed for more than two years: Lower the interest rate paid on excess reserves. The basic idea is simple. If the Fed reduces the reward for holding excess reserves, banks will hold less of them—which means they will have to find something else to do with the money, such as lending it out or putting it in the capital markets.

He later observed in 2013:

If the Fed charged banks rather than paid them, wouldn’t bankers shun excess reserves? Yes, and that’s precisely the point. Excess reserves sitting idle in banks’ accounts at the Fed do nothing to boost the economy. We want banks to use the money.

I suggested negative IOR way back in early 2009.

They also point out that the Fed has ignored the intent of the Congressional authorization of IOR:

The law specifies that IOER be paid at “rates not to exceed the general level of short-term interest rates.” However, from 2009- 2017, the IOER rate exceeded the effective fed funds rate 100 percent of the time, the yield on the 3-month Treasury bills 97.2 percent of the time, and the yield on 3-month nonfinancial commercial paper 82.1 percent of the time (Figure 2-5). The Fed is including its own discount rate (the primary credit rate) in the general level of short-term interest rates to demonstrate compliance with the law.

In connection to IOER, Representative Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, stated:

[It] is critical that the Fed stays in their lane. Interest on reserves – especially excess reserves – is not only fueling a much more improvisational monetary policy, but it has fueled a distortionary balance sheet that has clearly allowed the Fed into credit allocation policy where it does not have business.

Credit policies are the purview of Congress, not the Fed. When Congress granted the Fed the power to pay interest on reserves, it was never contemplated or articulated that IOER might be used to supplant FOMC. If the Fed continues to do so, I fear its independence could be eroded.

The following is also an important point—making sure than monetary policy continues to be about money:

Noting that the large quantity of reserves produced by the Fed contributed to the fed funds rate trading at or below the IOER rate, John Taylor of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said:

[W]e would be better off with a corridor or band with a lower interest rate on deposits [IOER] at the bottom of the band, a higher interest rate on borrowing from the Fed [the discount rate] at the top of the band, and most important, a market determined interest rate above the floor and below the ceiling… We want to create a connect, not a disconnect, between the interest rate that the Fed sets and the amount of reserves or the amount of money that’s in the system. Because the Fed is responsible for the reserves and money, that connection is important. Without that connection, 63 you raise the chances of the Fed being a multipurpose institution.

Most importantly, the government is beginning to recognize that it was tight money that caused the Great Recession:

The preceding observations and alternative views merit consideration. In particular, Hetzel (2009) states:

Restrictive monetary policy rather than the deleveraging in financial markets that had begun in August 2007 offers a more direct explanation of the intensification of the recession that began in the summer of 2008.

When people like Hetzel, Beckworth and I made that claim back in 2008-09, we were laughed at.  Who’s laughing now?

Why is the 30-year forward yen at about 50 to the dollar?

Nick Rowe likes to teach PPP with a thought experiment, asking students to imagine how they might guess an exchange rate between the dollar and a foreign currency.  Thus if you went to Japan and noticed that most prices seem to be about 100 times higher than in the US, you might guess that 100 yen equals one dollar.  Of course PPP often does not hold true, but it’s still probably the best first guess for the exchange rate, if you had absolutely nothing else to go on.

In that case, it is more useful to think of the exchange rate being caused by the Japanese price level being 100 times higher than in the US?  Or should we think about the price level difference being caused by the exchange rate?  Is this even a meaningful question?

I like to think about the two price levels as being in some sense more fundamental, as I could imagine a case with no contract between the two countries.  Then once contact is made by Commodore Perry, the exchange rate conforms to the pre-existing price levels.  But you can also imagine a new country being settled by England, and choosing to use the dollar rather than the pound.  In that case the two price levels would be determined by the choice of the exchange rate.  The adoption of the euro is an obvious recent example, which caused Italian prices to plummet dramatically.

In a recent comment section I’ve discussed the fact that the 30-year forward dollar trades at roughly 50 yen (actually 49.332).  Is that exchange rate caused by the interest rate differential, or is the interest rate differential caused by the forward exchange rate?  People in the financial markets may focus on interest rate differentials as the primary factor, as the 30-year forward exchange rate is not very liquid and seems to be roughly 50Y/$ merely to prevent easy arbitrage opportunities, given the interest rate differential.

[I tried to see if interest parity held, but I don’t know the interest rate on 30-year zero coupon bonds.  So I took the yields on actual 30-year bonds as a proxy.  The US 30-year bond yields 3.17% and the Japanese bond yields 0.747%.  The differential is 2.423%.  Then I took 1.02423, and raised it to the 30th power, which equals 2.0508.  Then I took the actual exchange rate of 106.17, and divided by 2.0508, and got 51.77 as the implied 30-year forward yen. Is that right?]

In my view, it makes more sense to think of the expected 30-year forward exchange rate of 50 as the fundamental factor, and the interest rate differential as contingent on that expected future exchange rate.  Conversely, consider what would happen if we were to start with the interest rate differential as fundamental.  Then thinking in terms of interest rates, what would the BOJ have to do to prevent the yen from getting so strong in 30 years?  Obviously they need to make monetary policy more expansionary.  That’s how you weaken a currency.  But how do you do that in terms of the interest rate differential?  Obviously you need to get rid of the interest rate differential if you want the yen to be worth roughly 106 out in the year 2048.  But how do you get rid of the interest rate differential, while making monetary policy much more expansionary?

Let’s assume the BOJ cannot do anything about the level of interest rates in the US.  If they want the yen to be worth 106Y/$ in the year 2048, they need to get Japanese interest rates up to 3.17% on 30-year Japanese government bonds.  Even more daunting, they must do so with a highly expansionary monetary policy.  (Cochrane and Williamson are smiling at this point.)

So how do you do that?  Normally, a decision to raise interest rates is treated by the financial markets as a tight money policy, which causes the currency to appreciate.  So the BOJ needs to get interest rates up to 3.17% on 30-year bonds, and keep the exchange rate close to 106Y/$.  So how do they do that?  The simplest solution is to go back to Bretton Woods, and peg the yen to the dollar at 106.  If credible, that will cause Japanese 30-year bond yields to rise to 3.17%, and after 30 years the exchange rate will still be 106.  Because of PPP, Japan’s inflation rate over the next 30 years probably won’t be much different from the US inflation rate.  More importantly, the current expected inflation rate will rise to roughly 2%, just as in the US.

The fact that investors now expect the yen to be trading at about 50Y/$ in 2048 tells you just how far away from success the BOJ remains.  This is why I say that any talk of exiting from monetary stimulus is crazy.  Monetary policy in Japan remains extremely tight, expected to produce very low inflation over the next 30 years.  They need more than tinkering; they need a dramatic regime change.  I don’t advocate a fixed exchange rate system, but that’s one example of a radical regime change that would “work”.  A better option might be level targeting, combined with a “do whatever it takes” approach to monetary policy implementation.  I.e. buy as many assets as needed to get prices or NGDP rising along the desired level targeting path.

We don’t have that regime today, which makes the 30-year forward yen a useful proxy for policy credibility.  Only when the 30-year forward yen rises far above the current level of 50 can the BOJ start relaxing.  The BOJ has had some success in boosting prices and NGDP, but very little success in convincing the markets that this policy will continue in the very long run.  It seems like markets believe that once Abe is gone the BOJ will revert to its old habits.

PS.  If the regime change is credible they won’t have to buy very many assets.

Is Mexico now targeting the forecast?

Commenter HL directed me to this slide from a presentation by the Mexican central bank:

HL suggested that this meant the Bank of Mexico is now “targeting the forecast”.  It does sort of suggest that policy is being adopted, but it’s hard for me to be sure.  Any comments would be welcome.

Let’s recall the mistakes made by the Fed in 2008:

1. Too much weight on inflation, too little on NGDP growth.

2. Growth rate targeting rather than level targeting.

3.  Failure to target the forecast (as well as too little reliance on market forecasts.)

4.  Failure to do “whatever it takes”.

That seems like a lot, but fixing some of these problems makes the other issues much less of a problem.  Addressing problem #2 alone, or #4 alone, would have gone a long way toward making the 2007-09 recession much less “Great”.

When combined with David Beckworth’s recent post on level targeting, I’m becoming more optimistic about global trends in monetary policy.