Archive for the Category NGDP targeting


If there’s a recession, would it be Trump’s fault?

The short answer is “probably not”. But this requires making some careful distinctions:

1. It’s possible that Trump’s policies might become so reckless as to create a “real shock” that is large enough to cause a recession. Say a massive all-out global trade war. That seems very unlikely.

2. More likely, Trump’s policies might create a real shock large enough to complicate the implementation of effective monetary policy. Think of the way that the housing bust complicated things for the Fed in 2006-08. In this scenario, it would still be the Fed’s fault, but it would be bad trade polices combined with a flawed monetary regime that led to recession.

In this second case, I still think it would be very important not to blame Trump for the recession. We are never going to fix the problem of bad monetary policy until we stop misdiagnosing the problem. Today, 99% of economists continue to misdiagnose what went wrong in 2008, absolving the Fed of blame for an excessively tight monetary policy. To fix that, we need to start talking honestly about what causes most recessions—falling NGDP, not real shocks. And we also need to implement a regime that prevents real shocks from spilling over and causing bad monetary policy—which means NGDPLT.

3. It might be argued that Trump is to blame because he appointed the top officials at the Fed, and they made serious policy errors. To be honest, I would not blame the Dems for blaming Trump for any recession. After all, he’ll take undeserved credit for anything good that happens, so it’s only fair. Nonetheless, impartial observers who want to get at the truth should be careful before blaming Trump for any Fed screw-ups. If a demand-side recession did occur, would it be because Powell, Clarida, Quarles and the others were poor choices, or because the Fed’s entire operating system is flawed, and has been for decades? Obviously, the latter is much more likely.

Some people blame Bernanke for the Great Recession, but Greenspan’s public comments during this period suggest that the Fed would have done even worse if he had still been chair. As long as we focus on personalities we won’t solve the underlying problem, which is a flawed monetary regime.

Hopefully, the Fed has learned from the mistakes of 2008.  But we won’t know for sure until the next real shock comes along—the next crisis that requires the Fed to take aggressive steps to stabilize expected NGDP growth.

Those suffering from TDS may find this post to be dispiriting.  It would feel good to blame Trump for any recession.  Don’t worry, the voters will always blame the government for recessions, no matter what I say.

Some people who like Trump may be surprised that I take this view.  If so, it’s probably because your thinking is corrupted by politics and you assume that everyone is similarly corrupt.  Just as habitual thieves assume that everyone else would steal if they could get away with it.

I’ve been very clear all along that presidents have very little impact on the business cycle. Trump has done some useful tax changes, and lots of bad policies in areas such as trade, immigration, deficit spending, global warming, promoting an unstable financial system, etc.  But none of that has much impact on the business cycle—those are things that impact long run trend growth.  That’s how the President’s impact on the economy should be judged.

PS.  I’m not currently predicting a recession, as I don’t believe recessions can be forecasted.

Teaching money/macro in 90 minutes

A few weeks ago I gave a 90-minute talk to some high school and college students in a summer internship program at UC Irvine.  Most (but not all) had taken basic intro to economics.  I need to boil everything down to 90 minutes, including money, prices, business cycles, interest rates, the Great Recession, how the Fed screwed up in 2008, and why the Fed screwed up in 2008.  Not sure if that’s possible, but here’s the outline I prepared:

1.  The value of money (15 minutes)

2.  Money and prices  (20 minutes)

3.  Money and business cycles (25 minutes)

4.  Money and interest rates (15 minutes)

5.  Q&A (15 minutes)


Inflation is currently running at about 2%.  It’s averaged 2% since 1990.  That’s not a coincidence, the Fed targets inflation at 2%.  But it’s also not normal.  Inflation was much higher in the 1980s, and still higher in the 1970s.  In the 1800s, inflation averaged zero and there were years like 1921 and 1930-32 where it was more like negative 10%!

We need to figure out how the Fed has succeeded in targeting inflation at 2%, then why this was the wrong target, and finally how this mistake (as well as a couple freshman-level errors) led to the Great Recession.

1. Value of Money  

Like any other product, the real value of money changes over time.

But . . . the nominal price of money stays constant, a dollar always costs $1

Value of money = 1/P (where P is price level (CPI, etc.))

Thus if price level doubles, value of a dollar falls in half.


Year      Height    Unit of measure   Real height

1980      1 yard           1.0                1 yard

2018      6 feet            1/3               2 yards

Switching from yards to feet makes the average size of things look three times larger.  This is “size inflation”.  But this boy’s measured height increased 6-fold, which means he even grew (2 times) taller in real terms.

Year      Income    Price level  Value of money   Real Income

1980     $30,000        1.0               1.0               $30,000

2018    $180,000       3.0               1/3               $60,000

The dollar lost 2/3rds of its purchasing power between 1980 and 2018, as the average thing costs three times as much.  This is “price inflation”.  But some nominal values increase by more than three times, such as this person’s income, which means the income doubled in real terms, or in purchasing power.

Punch line:  Don’t try to explain inflation by picking out items that increased in price especially fast, say rents or gas prices, rather think of inflation as a change in the value of money.  Focus on what determines the value of money . . .

2.  Money and the Price Level

. . . which, in a competitive market is supply and demand:

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.11.51 PM

Demand for Money: How much cash people prefer to hold.

Who determines how much money you carry in your wallet?  You?  Are you sure?  Is that true for everyone?

Who determines the average cash holding of everyone in the economy?  The Fed.

How can we reconcile these two perceptions?  They are both correct, in a sense.

Helicopter drop example:  Double money supply from $200 to $400/capita

==> Excess cash balances

==>attempts to get rid of cash => spending rises => AD rises => P rises

==>eventually prices double.  Back in equilibrium.

Now it takes $400 to buy what $200 used to buy.  You determine real cash holdings (the purchasing power in your wallet), while the Fed determines average nominal cash holdings (number of dollars).

Punch line:  Fed can control the price level (value of money), by controlling the money supply.

What if money demand changes?  No problem, adjust money supply to offset the change.

Fed has used this power to keep inflation close to 2% since 1991.  Before they tried, inflation was all over the map.  After they tried, they succeeded in keeping the average rate close to 2%.  That success would have been impossible if Fed did not control price level.

But, inflation targeting is not optimal:

3.  Money and business cycles

Suppose I do a study and find that on average, 40 people go to the movies when prices are $8, and 120 people attend on average when prices are $12.  Is this consistent with the laws of supply and demand?  Yes, completely consistent. But many students have trouble seeing this.

Explanation:  When the demand for movies rises, theaters respond with higher prices.  The two data points lie along a single upward-sloping supply curve.

Implication:  Never reason from a price change.  A rise in prices doesn’t tell us what’s happening in a market.  It could be more demand or less supply.  The same is true of the overall price level.  Higher inflation might indicate an overheating economy (too much AD), or a negative supply shock:

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.26.42 PM

In mid-2008, the Fed saw inflation rise sharply and worried the economy was overheating.  It was reasoning from a price change. In fact, prices rose rapidly because aggregate supply was declining.  It should have focused on total spending, aka “aggregate demand”, for evidence of overheating:

M*V = P*Y = AD = NGDP

This represents total spending on goods and services.  Unstable NGDP causes business cycles.

Example: mid-2008 to mid-2009, when NGDP fell 3%:Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.43.04 PM

Here we assume that nominal GDP was $20 trillion in 2008, and then fell in 2009, causing a deep recession and high unemployment.

Musical chairs model:  NGDP is the total revenue available to businesses to pay wages and salaries.  Because wages are “sticky”, or slow to adjust, a fall in NGDP leads to fewer jobs, at least until wages can adjust.  This is a recession.

It’s like the game of musical chairs.  If you take away a couple chairs, then when the music stops several contestants will end up sitting on the floor.

The Fed needs to keep NGDP growing about 4%/year, by adjusting M to offset any changes in V (velocity of circulation).

Punch line:  Don’t focus in inflation, NGDP growth is the key to the business cycle

Why did the Fed mess up in 2008? Two episodes of reasoning from a price change:

1.  The 2008 supply shock inflation was wrongly viewed as an overheating economy.

2.  Low interest rates were wrongly viewed as easy money.

4.  Money and Interest Rates

Below is the short and long run effects of an increase in the money supply, and then a decrease in the money supply.  Notice that easy money causes rates to initially fall, then rise much higher.  Vice versa for a tight money policy.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.26.56 PMWhen the money supply increases, rates initially decline due to the liquidity effect. The opposite occurs when the money supply is reduced.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.43.15 PMHowever, in the long run, interest rates go the opposite way due to the income and Fisher effects:

Income effect: Expansionary monetary policy leads to higher growth in the economy, more demand for credit, and higher interest rates.

Fisher effect:  Expansionary monetary policy leads to higher inflation, which causes lenders to demand higher interest rates.

In 2008, the Fed thought lower rates represented the liquidity effect from an easy money policy.

Actually, during 2008 we were seeing the income and Fisher effects from a previous tight money policy.

Don’t assume that short run means “right now” and long run means “later”.  What’s happening right now is usually the long run effect of monetary policies adopted earlier.

Punchline:  Don’t assume low rates are easy money and vice versa.  Focus on NGDP growth to determine stance of monetary policy.  That’s what matters.

(I actually ended up covering about 90% of what I intended to cover, skipping the yardstick metaphor.)

NeoFisherism in Turkey

From the FT:

The Turkish lira led a broad drop in emerging market currencies on Tuesday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to take greater control of monetary policy if he wins elections next month.

Mr Erdogan has for years harboured a deep antagonism towards high interest rates, taking the unconventional view that they cause rather than curb inflation. Last week, he warned that they were “the mother and father of all evil”, fuelling concern that he would not allow the central bank the freedom to raise rates.

The Turkish president told Bloomberg that cutting interest rates would lower inflation. “The lower the interest rate is, the lower inflation will be,” he said. “The moment we take it down to a low level, what will happen to the cost inputs? That too will go down . . . you will be able to get the opportunity to sell your products at much lower prices . . . The matter is as simple as this.”

PS.  A new paper by Warwick J. McKibbin and Augustus J. Panton makes the case for NGDP targeting:

Looking to the future the importance of supply shocks being driven by climate policy, climate shocks and other productivity shocks generated by technological disruption as well as a structural transformation of the global economy appear likely to be increasingly important. This suggests an important evolution of the monetary framework may be to shift from the current flexible inflation targeting regime to a more explicit nominal income growth targeting framework. The key research questions that need further analysis are: how forecastable is nominal income growth relative to inflation?; and what precise definition of nominal income is most appropriate given the ultimate objectives of policy (nominal GDP, nominal GNP or some other measure that is available at high frequency (e.g. big data on spending)). Also, the issue of growth of income versus the level of income is an open research question with many of the same issues to be faced as the choice between inflation targeting versus price level targeting.

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.

Alternative Money University

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching in a four day program called “Alternative Money University”, organized by George Selgin. The program will take place July 15-18 at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, and George provides some information about registering in his blog:

Students in or entering their last year of undergraduate or beginning years of graduate studies are invited to apply. Successful applicants will be chosen on the basis of their academic records and demonstrated interest in monetary economics.

Those chosen to take part will attend, free of charge (with hotel and travel expenses covered by the Cato Institute), several thought-provoking academic seminars led by top scholars in the field. This year’s seminars will include:

The Evolution of Money and Banks,” taught by George Selgin, the director of Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternative and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Georgia.

The Economics of Commodity Money (and Bitcoin),” taught by Lawrence H. White, professor of economics at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

The Role of Monetary Policy in the Great Recession,” taught by David Beckworth, senior research fellow in the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and host of the Macro Musings podcast.

Monetary Rules vs. Discretion,” taught by, Scott Sumner, Ralph G. Hawtrey Chair of Monetary Policy and director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and professor emeritus at Bentley University.

If you wish to apply, or to learn more about the program, visit Applications are open until January 31, 2018.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard will be providing a keynote address at the beginning of the event.

I’m not sure about the logistics of doing this, but I’d like to use the unpublished manuscript for my new book as a teaching resource. This book will be called “The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism and the Great Recession”, and will be based on my last 9 years of blogging. If I’m able to do so, then students in my course would be the first to use this book in a class.

I’m really looking forward to this project. I’ve never actually taught a course where most of the students wanted to be there—where most of the students actually want to learn the material. So it will be a new experience for me.