Econ 101: Erdogan’s Turkey

President Erdogan believes that by cutting interest rates on the Turkish lira the resulting depreciation of its exchange rate will cheapen Turkish goods and thus increase their exports and promote growth (the China model, he thinks). Accordingly, he has replaced four central bank governors who could not bring themselves to accede to his demands. “Revolving door-Turkeys-last-four-central-bank-chiefs”

In an earlier disastrous cycle, the Central Bank of Turkey (CBT) reduced its policy rate from 24% in 2019 in steps to 8.5% in mid 2020 only to raise it again to 19% in March 2021 until the latest cuts started in September of this years. In November, “The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has decided to reduce the policy rate (one-week repo auction rate) from 15 percent to 14 percent.” “Press Releases/2021/ANO2021-59”  

When I was part of the IMF team in 2000-1 working with the Turkish authorities to regain control of inflation (which ranged from 60 and 100 percent between 1980 and 1999) and clean up the banking sector (they closed 13 banks in 2000), the CBT policy interest rate was briefly raised to 100% (ala Paul Volcker in the US). Inflation declined rapidly to single digit levels (until the last four years) with interest rates quickly following.

The dollar price of the Turkish lira has fallen in half since February of this year (i.e., a dollar will buy twice as many lira–one lira cost 0.14 dollars in February and 0.061 dollar on December 17).  Erdogan seems to think he is choosing to benefit workers (exporters) over consumers (importer), though they are generally the same people.  If the lira depreciates, the rest of the world can buy lira more cheaply and thus (according to Erdogan) will buy more cheaper Turkish exports. This should increase the demand for Turkish good and the jobs that produce them and increase the growth of the Turkish economy.

As any economist can explain to Mr. Erdogan, depreciating the exchange rate with lower interest rates in Turkey than in the rest of the world is achieved by printing more money with which to buy foreign currencies. Broad money (M2) increased almost 48% in November 2020 from a year earlier and 24% from a year earlier this November. But such a rapid increase in the money supply will increase prices in Turkey over and above the increase in the price of imports from the lira’s depreciation. “Turkey-central bank-Erdogan”

Inflation in Turkey has risen from single digits between 2004 to 2016 to “21.3%” in November 2021 (annual rate from a year earlier). According to the Central Banking Journal “Official figures show Turkish inflation reached 21.31% year-on-year in November, but there is considerable controversy over whether these figures are accurate. Several well-informed observers, have told Central Banking that they believe the official figures understate actual inflation.”  “Turkey’s currency hits new low after further rate cut”  Steve Hanke reports the actual rate at around 100%  “Steve Hanke’s estimate of Turkey’s inflation rate”

In short, Mr. Erdogan’s crazy policy of reducing interest rates has not made Turkish goods cheaper for the rest of the world. As the lira became cheaper for foreigners (depreciation), the lira price of those goods became more expensive (inflation). The real effective exchange rate (which takes account of both) is not being significantly reduced because Turkey is experiencing higher and higher inflation along with the lira’s depreciation. Monetary policy works in Turkey the same way as in every other place.  The CBT’s inflation target, by the way, is 5%. “Turkey-Erdogan currency crisis”

Econ 101: Inflation –Temporary or Longer Lasting?

Prices of many goods and services have increased in recent months. Are these increases permanent or temporary or will they continue rising in the future? Before exploring those questions, it is important to understand the measures of inflation we are considering. What is the current rate of inflation in the United States? U.S. inflation in September was 3.0% (Compound annual rate of change for Consumer Price Index without food and energy prices over the month of September), or 4.0% (percent change from a year ago) or 5.4% (percent change from a year ago including food and energy prices). What does it mean if this is temporary or long lasting?

If prices remain where they are today after the 5.4% increase from a year ago, inflation going forward would be zero even though the cost of living would be permanently higher. If inflation is long lasting it means that prices will continue to rise for some time (years). What are the factors that influence the future behavior of prices? What should we expect in the U.S.?

The price of a good or service increases when its demand exceeds its supply and similarly for prices in general (when aggregate demand exceeds aggregate supply). As prices are measured in a country’s currency, supplying too much of the currency (generally when the money supply grows more rapidly than the supply of goods and services) causes its value to fall (i.e., prices in the country’s currency to rise).

On the cost side, firms will hire workers and pay them a particular wage (and related benefits) when it adds more to the company’s income than it costs, which includes the cost of the tools they use (capital). Workers will accept a job when its benefits (pecuniary and nonpecuniary) are the best they can find. The inflation expected by the employer and the employee over the period of the wage contract is an important factor in determining what will be offered and what will be accepted.

Because of changes in consumer demands, worker preferences, halving of work visas for immigrants, and supply chain disruptions, labor markets are temporarily in turmoil. September unemployment in the U.S. was 7.674 million while there were 10.4 million job vacancies. Employers are raising wages in an effort to fill those vacancies. As reported by Scott Lincicome: “Goldman Sachs analysts saw a ‘perfect storm of factors that have significantly reduced the supply of workers who are currently looking for jobs at the same time that labor demand—as measured by job openings—has risen to an all-time high.’ This includes… state and federal benefits, early retirements, severely restricted immigration, a switch to self-employment, fear of COVID, and a geographic mismatch between unemployed workers and available jobs. Combined, these factors account for most of the missing workers out there.”  “What if the labor shortage isn’t transitory?”

In short, the labor force has shrunk just as the demand for output is increasing. This excess demand for workers is driving up labor costs and thus pushing up output prices. If the 5 or 6 percent price increase experienced over the present year is expected to be temporary, i.e., if prices are expected to return to their level a year ago, because the supply of labor returns to its pre-pandemic level, wage increases should be temporary as well, falling back to their pre pandemic level and growing thereafter on average with labor productivity plus the 2% inflation target of the central bank once there is full employment and better labor market balance.

More likely, if the inflation is expected to be temporary, i.e., the current 5 to 6 percent inflation stops but prices remain at their increased level, wages will remain at the increased level, but their real (inflation adjusted) value will fall back to their original level. In other words, if these higher prices are expected to be “permanent,” the nominal wage increases now being experienced will not result in any increase in real wages and the worker short fall might remain.

While some of those who withdrew from the labor force will probably return, it is not likely to fully satisfy the demand for various reasons (early retirement, fall in immigration, etc.). Filling (or attempting to fill) the remaining labor shortage will require additional wage increases (unless the public’s demand for goods and services falls–see below). In that case, firms will plan to pass on their higher cost of labor to their customers. If we, the customers, can continue to pay the higher prices, the inflation will continue. Expectations of higher prices and or inflation will be realized.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a sharp fall in output and thus to most people’s incomes. The government provided extraordinary financial support to temporarily fill the resulting income gap. Such support did not increase the output of goods and services or even prevent their decline but rather temporarily redistributed income from those saving it to avoid hunger and defaults on rents, mortgages, and other financial obligations by those who lost it.  “The new covid-19 support bill”  Because personal incomes were substantially maintained while actual output fell, personal savings rates increased dramatically and continue to be well above pre pandemic levels.

The Federal Reserve pitched in by buying up huge amounts of the resulting government debt increasing its balance sheet from $3.5 trillion in February 2020 to $6.3 trillion in August 2021 (measured by the monetary base, M0). This fueled an increase in board money (M3–M0 plus bank deposits and similar liquid assets of the public) from $15.5.0 trillion in February 2020 to $20.8 trillion in August 2021. This increase, though substantial, was significantly less than the increase in M0 (which almost doubled) because the Fed paid interest to banks for keeping the new base money with the Fed (excess reserves) rather than lending it to the public, by paying banks interest on all bank reserves kept with the central bank.

Historical experience is that the public will not be willing to hold these larger amounts of money for ever. They will eventually attempt to spend them down to their traditional (normal) levels, thus adding to aggregate demand for goods and services (and inflationary pressure).

Eventually, the demand for goods and services (aggregate demand) must fall to match real output, or output must rise to match demand. But if the Federal Reserve continues to print money faster than its real value is being inflated away, the inflationary process will continue or accelerate. Similarly, if the government continues to redistribute income from those with a lower propensity to consume (generally higher income families with a higher savings rate) to those with a higher propensity to consume (generally lower income families that save little), aggregate demand will remain excessive perpetuating inflation.

Historically, hyperinflation episodes invariably exploded in the collapse of the currency.  “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe”  Turkey has come closest to a high inflation “equilibrium.” From the mid 1980s to the end of the 1990s Turkey’s inflation rate varied between 80 and a 120 percent. A high inflation “equilibrium” would be characterized by nominal interest rates and wage rates that fully incorporate the ongoing expected rate of inflation in order to preserve the appropriate real (inflation adjusted) rates. Interest rates in Turkey in this period generally exceeded 100%, as did wage growth.

In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund stated that: “In settings where inflation is rising amid still-subdued employment rates and risks of expectations de-anchoring are becoming concrete, monetary policy may need to be tightened to get ahead of price pressures, even if that delays the employment recovery.” “World Economic Outlook-October 2021

As stands out clearly from the increasingly but unevenly rising inflation in the 1970, the process of increasing inflation is not linear (see the chart above).  As inflation increased, the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy (raised interest rates to slow monetary growth) to slow inflation, causing real output to slow or decline. Policy then eased prematurely, and inflation and the expectation of higher inflation took off again, each time reaching a higher peak (until Paul Volcker stepped on the breaks and ended the game in 1979-80–the exciting year I worked at the Federal Reserve Board).

The Federal Reserve is smarter today than it was in the 1970s and has the tools to prevent the acceleration of inflation and the unhinging of inflation expectation. But the excess money balances and personal saving are very large and the government’s seeming willingness to run up unprecedented deficits create a powerful inflationary head wind. The tightening of monetary policy that will be needed (sooner rather than later in my view) will reduce the Fed’s purchases of Treasury debt and increase interest rates. Higher interest rates will increase government spending for debt service on its very large stock of debt, which will further increase government borrowing and debt or require cuts in spending for other programs. This must be added to the economic challenges of confronting climate change, the continuing recovery and adjustments from the Covid-19 pandemic, the deepening and destructive partisan divide that is stifling Congress, and the growing lack of public trust that drives it.

Whether our current inflation is temporary or longer lasting depends on how quickly and decisively the Federal Reserve tightens monetary policy and how quickly people go back to work. Whether the U.S. economy and the government’s large stock of debt continue to enjoy safe haven status around the world depends heavily on whether our government brings its spending and tax policies under better control.

Econ 201: CARES Act–Who pays for it?

April 11, 2010

Congress has authorized over 2 trillion dollars (so far) to help those harmed by the partial shutdown of the economy undertaken to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to facilitate its rapid recovery when it is safe for people to return to work. The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation. No good economic purpose would be served, for example, by lenders foreclosing on mortgage and other loans to workers sheltered in place at home with no income with which to service them. Some of the increased spending quite rightly will go to improve our ability to deal with covid-19 directly (expanded hospital capacity, virus testing capacity, vaccine research and development, etc.)

Obviously, it will be impossible to prevent some amount of waste and corruption from such a huge increase in expenditures. Every rent seeker on the planet has been lobbying Congress to get a piece of the action. In the design of these support programs every effort should be made to carefully target them on the people and activities appropriate to the “above objectives, to remove them and their associated distortions of economic resource allocation when the crisis has passed (i.e., keep them temporary), and to provide watchdog oversight of their implementation. Unfortunately, President Trump is already undermining such oversight. “How-trump-is-sabotaging-the-coronavirus-rescue-plan”  Nonetheless, the objective of minimizing the economic damage of a temporary forced shutdown of a significant part of the economy is appropriate.

The question explored here is who will pay for it and how.  The entertainment output of the economy (restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, vacation travel) is to a large extent non-essential, at least for a few months. If those are shuttered, about 20 percent (my guess for purposes of this analysis) of our economic output and the incomes of those producing them will be lost for the duration of the shutdown. A central goal of the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) is to prevent this necessary shutdown from killing that part of the economy and from spilling over into others. The goal is to enable it to restart as quickly and easily as health conditions permit. Thus, idled workers who would not be able to pay their rent/mortgage, or electric bill, or buy food without help should not be evicted for temporary nonpayment etc. The government might pay them for their lost income directly (unemployment insurance) or it might pay their employer to continue paying their wages for non-work under one program or another, thus continuing their health insurance and other benefits. These details are important but not the subject of this note.  The simplest assumption is that they all receive cash payments sufficient to see them through the shutdown (universal basic income, guaranteed minimum income or whatever you want to call it).

The starting fact/assumption is that the economy’s output and thus income is 20 percent or so lower for the next few months than it was a few months ago. Everyone on average has 20 percent less income, but that average consists of those who continue working as before and those sitting at home earning nothing.  If those unemployed are to receive income support (UBI), those still working and those clipping investment coupons must pay for it.  Paying an income subsidy to the unemployed does not create income, it redistributes it.

The $2 trillion plus authorized by Congress for these purposes will be debt financed, i.e. the government will borrow the money (adding to its deficit of $1 trillion for 2020 already budgeted).  So, to examine who pays for this program we must start by asking who will buy this additional debt?  In the past the Chinese and Germans funded an important part of our debts (via their trade surpluses with the US.  “Who-pays-uncle-sam’s-deficits”  China’s current account surplus with the U.S. is now negligible and it and most every other country in the world will have the financing of their own covid-19 expenditures to worry about. Those purchasing the additional Treasury bonds will thus be largely Americans who must shift their spending from other things (other investments or consumption) to the bonds and thus to the incomes of the unemployed these programs are supposed to be helping.  To the extent that new bond buyers are diverting their spending on other financial instruments interest rates on such instruments will tend to rise.

At this point very little money has been disbursed under CARES and no new government bonds to finance it have been issued. As individuals and firms miss rent and debt service payments, their lenders are being squeezed for the funds with which they must service those financing them (this is why we call banks financial intermediaries). Utility companies faced with nonpayments by their customers must borrow to continue paying their own employees, etc.  Scrambling for such funds would drive up interest rates in funding markets where it not for the Federal Reserve’s willingness to provide the needed liquidity. Similarly, with regard to the supply of funds to financial markets (the other side of bank’s balance sheets), normal investors are interrupting or even withdrawing funding in order to cover their own income shortfalls. This again squeezes financial sector liquidity and the flow of funds from lenders to borrowers needed to finance the remaining economic activity.

Enter the Federal Reserve.  In order to supply the missing funds–the missing rent and debt service payments–needed to keep the financial system flowing and in balance–the Fed has supplied almost $2 trillion to banks over the last 6 weeks, largely by outright purchases of treasury securities, though it has also opened a number of lending facilities. Bank reserve deposits at the Fed increased about $1 trillion over this period and M2 grew by about the same amount. On April 9, the Fed announced that it was opening or expanding facilities to support CARES Act objectives with up to another $2.3 trillion (leveraged by Treasury financial support to cover losses on any Fed loans provided in support of the CARES Act).  Federal Reserve Press Releases  This includes support for lending by the Small Business Administration (refinancing of SBA loans), the Main Street Lending Program administered by banks, Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities, and the Municipal Liquidity Facility. These are dramatic expansions of Fed credit operations and the details of eligibility of borrowers and of the facilities’ administration are critically important. Ensuring that this massive government intervention in the economy creates the right incentives for a quick rebound in the economy when it can reopen and that these interventions are indeed temporary will be difficult and is very important. But the question I want to address here is whether this monetary financing on such a huge scale will be inflationary.

Simplifying and reviewing, if economic output/income falls by, say 20 percent, and the loss is shared by those working with those temporarily laid off (or idle) by workers lending money to those idled, the Fed need not be involved. However, as is often the case with fiscal policy, it is simply beyond the administrative capacity of the government to launch and coordinate such a redistribution of income quickly and smoothly enough to avoid the disruptions of credit flows described above. Instead, the Fed has printed the money paid to those idled by shuttering 20 percent of the economy. As a result, the idled workers have their regular income (more or less) from newly printed money, and the rest have their regular incomes, but the economy is producing 80 less for them to buy. The “excess” income constitutes the inflationary potential. If this income is voluntarily saved (i.e. a temporary increase in the demand for money), the increased saving would be indirectly financing the spending of the unemployed. It is not unreasonable to expect this to reflect actual behavior for a shutdown of a month or two. But should it drag on for many months the extra saving held in anticipation of a reopening of restaurants and theaters, etc. will seek other consumption outlets and prices will begin to rise.

With luck, the economy will begin to return to “normal” after a few months and the Fed will begin to withdraw its monetary injection as loans and payment delinquencies are paid off from increased output/income. The artificially preserved incomes will increasingly be spent on restored output without significant inflationary consequences.

But the CARES Act provides for the forgiveness of loans by firms that kept or that rehire their workers promptly. As the Fed sells its treasuries back to the public (or allows them to mature without replacing them), the Treasury will be issuing the additional debt needed to fund the $2 trillion plus of CARES Act expenditures, including the forgiveness of debt described above. In short, to avoid the inflationary consequences that would normally flow from the Fed’s massive increase in the money supply, the monetary financing must be replaced with fiscal debt financing.  It is hard to see where the money will come from to buy such a large increase debt (some, but not much, will probably come from the foreign financing implicit in an increase in our balance of payments deficits, but the rest of the world is now being saturated with its own debt) without an increase in market interest rates, potentially a significant increase in such interest rates. To the extent that financing remains monetary and pushes up prices, the rising inflation rate will be added to nominal market interest rates compounding the pressure of expanding real debt.  The long looming US fiscal debt problem may be near.

Paul Volcker, RIP

Paul Volcker was a man of strong convictions, including a commitment to sound money https://wcoats.blog/2017/10/14/sound-money/.  It surprises me that in 1971 he urged President Nixon to end the United States’ commitment to maintaining the price of gold to which most countries had fixed the exchange rates of their currencies. However, he led the Federal Reserve in ending the inflation that followed.

I first met Paul Volcker while seconded by the International Monetary Fund to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in Washington. During that year (1979) I reported to my former U of Chicago classmate, David Lindsey, while working with another UC classmate, Tom Simpson, in the Capital Markets Department in the Research and Statistics Division (it’s a small world).

At the time Mr. Volcker was President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The New York Fed conducted the monetary operations for the entire system (open market operations buying and selling government securities with Federal Reserve member banks–all of whom had offices in New York). Thus, the FRBNY was the most important and powerful of the twelve Federal Reserve Bank making the Board of Governors in Washington a bit jealous. NY Fed President Volcker had recently taken some decision with regard to “offshore” banking located in New York. The Board of Governors in Washington thought that Volcker had not properly consulted them, so they ordered him to come to Washington and explain himself (and get slapped on the wrists).  My boss, David Lindsey, allowed me to attend that board meeting, sitting quietly at the back of the room.

Cigar smoking Volcker stands 6’7”.  G. William Miller, Chairman of the Board of Governors at that time was a nonsmoker standing something like 5’6”.  Miller had banned smoking in the Board Room during his tenure, driving smoking governors like Nancy Teeters nuts.  Ms. Teeters was the first female Governor on the Board of Governors. The image of the diminutive Miller trying to dress down the towering Paul Volcker is seared into my memory.

As luck would have it (for Ms. Teeters and for the nation), Paul return a few months later (Aug 6, 1979) to replace Miller as Chairman, cigar in hand. Smoking, and firm monetary policy had returned to the Board of Governors. I was again privileged to sit at the back of the Board room on several more occasions.

Paul immediately changed how monetary policy was conducted. He reigned in the rate of growth of the money supply, focusing on Net Borrowed Reserves rather than the federal funds rate, which shot up to almost 20% for a few months.  Inflation had risen from around 4% when Nixon closed the gold window unevenly to almost 15% (percent increase from a year earlier) in April 1980 before plunging to 2.5% in Aug 1983. It took nerves of steel to allow short term interest rates to climb to almost 20% before turning inflation around.

Their Turkey and Ours

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes high interest rates are the cause of inflation, not the remedy for it”  The Economist May 19, 2018 “How-turkey-fell-from-investment-darling-to-junk-rated-emerging-market”

During the 1990s the inflation rate in Turkey averaged around 80% per annum varying between 60% and 105%.  Over that period interest rates on its 3-month treasury bills averaged about 30% above the inflation rate reaching almost 150% in 1996.  The economy grew rapidly in real terms with real GDP growth averaging 8% per annum between 1995-7.  But growth depended heavily on borrowing abroad in foreign currencies.  Banks were poorly regulated, and heavily exposed to foreign exchange risk and to government debt.  Obviously, Turkey’s nominal exchange rate depreciated at about the same rate as its inflation rate in order to preserve a stable real exchange rate.

In the wake of the Asian and Russian debt crises in 1997 and 1998 foreign investors became more risk averse and capital inflows into Turkey were reduced sharply slowing down economic growth from 7.5% in 1997 to 2.5% in 1998.  A serious earthquake in Turkey’s industrial heartland in August 1999 further deteriorated Turkey’s economic performance.  The combined impact of the two pushed the economy into a deep recession, shrinking GDP by 3.6% in 1999.

With support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1999-2003 the Turkish government reigned in its spending and monetary growth and reduced its inflation rate to 10% by 2004. I was a member of the IMF’s Turkey team at that time and remember the long sleepless nights very well. Turkey’s interest rates followed inflation down and, in fact, its real interest rates (nominal interest rate minus its inflation rate) fell from 30% to negative rates as the economy stabilized. During this transition, a number of state owned enterprises were privatized, 18 insolvent banks were intervened, and debt and the financial sector were restructured and strengthened.  Within a few (rough) years the economy was growing rapidly with low inflation and low interest rates.  In 2017 real GDP grew 7.0% though inflation had crept back up to 11.1%.

Following Turkey’s and the rest of the world’s recession in 2009 the country reverted back to its bad old ways.  “Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree easing access to foreign-exchange loans for Turkish companies.  The new rules lifted restrictions that barred companies without revenue in hard currencies from doing such borrowing—as long as the loans exceeded $5 million.”  How Erdogan’s push for endless growth brought Turkey to the Brink

Erdogan observed the low interest rates, low inflation, and high growth and apparently concluded that low interest rates caused low inflation rather than the other way around. Every economist knows that interest rates incorporate the market’s expectation of inflation over the period of a loan in order to establish a market clearing real rate of interest.  In 1996 when a borrower was willing to pay 130% interest and a lender was not willing to accept less it was because they expected 80% to 90% inflation per annum over the life of the loan.  The very high real rate (130% – 80% = 50%) reflects the risk premium of getting it wrong.

Central banks can, if inflation expectations adjust slowly, push real rates down temporarily by lowering nominal market rates below their equilibrium rate.  Doing so, however, increases the rate at which the money supply grows eventually increasing inflation and forcing nominal interest rates higher than they would otherwise have been.

Under political pressure from Erdogan, the central bank of Turkey has kept interest rates lower (and thus money supply growth greater) than are consistent with its inflation target of 5%.  In the last few years inflation has drifted up reaching 11.1% in 2017.  Markets have grown uneasy about the economic situation in Turkey and when the Central Bank failed to increase its policy interest rate last month from 17.75% investors began selling off Turkish bonds and withdrawing funds from the country.  Its exchange rate plummeted.  From January of this year the Turkish lira depreciated from 11.7 per dollar to 16 lira/USD at the beginning of July and to 21 lira/USD on the 22ndof August. Erdogan’s wrong-headed misunderstanding of the role of interest rates is pushing Turkey over the precipice of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile here in the United States, President Trump apparently attended the same school as Erdogan. After breaking a several decades old protocol against commenting on or interfering with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy when he stated last month that he didn’t want to see the Fed increase its policy interest rate, he did it again a few days ago. “Trump-escalates-attacks-federal-reserve”  Trump’s advice is wrong. The Federal Reserve needs to continue raising its policy rate back toward normal levels (3% to 4%) before inflation momentum becomes any stronger. Real interest rates are still negative (less than the inflation rate).  The Fed should have started increasing rates several years earlier.

Sound Money

Philadelphia Society Address on Oct 14, 2017

Introduction

Sound money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a healthy economy. How can we best achieve and maintain it?

For almost two hundred years the gold standard did a good job of producing sound money but its weaknesses ultimately led to its abandonment and exchange rates were allowed to float.

The movement in the 1980s to independent central banks with a stable price level mandate, such as an inflation target, delivered several decades of sound money—this was called the great moderation. But is came at the expense of increased exchange rate volatility and asset bubbles.

We need to return to a monetary regime with a hard anchor. But money fixed in price to a single commodity, such as gold, will not provide as stable a value as a price fixed to a larger basket of goods.

The discretion of the central bank to control the supply of money should be replaced with market determination of the money supply. To achieve this money should be issued under currency board rules. Specifically the public should be able to buy all of the currency they want at the currency’s official prices and redeem any of it they no longer want at the same price.

The Gold Standard

The essence of the gold standard was the obligation of the issuer of gold backed money to redeem it for gold at an officially fixed price. This limited the amount of money that could be issued.  The United States set the price of fine gold at $19.49 per ounce in 1791 and raised it to $20.69 in 1834. The Gold Standard Act of 1900 lowered it slightly to $20.67.  In 1934, Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act, which raised the price of gold to $35 an ounce and prohibited private ownership of gold in the United States.  Lyndon Johnson’s guns and butter deficit spending over heated the U.S. economy, which raised doubts about the U.S.’s ability to honor its gold commitments. By late 1971 the U.S. no longer had enough gold to honor its redemption commitment, and President Richard Nixon suspended the U.S. commitment to buy and sell gold at its official price. Yet, an official price remained, and was raised to $38.00 per ounce in 1971 and to $42.22 in 1972. In 1974, President Ford abolished controls on and freed the price of gold, which rose to a high of $1,895 in September 2011 before falling back to $1,304 this morning (October 14, 2017). More importantly, as gold has never been very representative of prices in general, prices of goods and services on average in the U.S. rose 500% over the 45 years since Nixon closed the gold window.

Floating Exchange Rates and Inflation Targets

When Nixon closed the gold window he also imposed wage and price controls, which lasted for three years. The dollar no longer had a “hard” anchor. It was no longer redeemable for anything and new policies were needed to regulate its supply. Over this period the Fed implemented monetary policy via adjustments in the overnight interbank lending rate (the Fed funds rate) in light of, among other things, its objectives for the growth of monetary aggregates. When wage and price controls were finally lifted the CPI increased a staggering 12% in 1974.

In the face of the Fed’s persistent over shooting of its narrow and broad money target ranges and the entrenching of higher and higher inflation expectations in wage and price increases, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker led the Board and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on October 6, 1979 in a dramatic change in the Fed’s approach to implementing monetary policy by shifting to an intermediate, narrow money target, operationally implemented via a target for non-borrowed reserves. The new approach required the Fed to relax its Fed funds rate targets and it increased the band set by the FOMC for the Fed funds rate from 0.5% to 4%. However, the fed funds rate rose temporarily to over 22% and GDP fell by over 2% in 1982—actual and expected inflation were reversed and fell below 2.5% by 1983. The new approach had defeated inflation but it was not easy to implement and by the end of 1989 the Fed abandoned it for the more traditional fed funds rate targeting.

At about the same time radical innovations in the development of monetary policy rules were launched by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which came to be known as explicit inflation targeting. An inflation target provides a clear and explicit rule that permits flexible operational approaches to its achievement. Given Friedman’s long and variable lags in the effect of monetary policy on prices, setting monetary operational targets (almost always the equivalent of a fed funds rate) must be based on the best model assisted forecast of its consistency with the inflation target one to two years in the future. A longer target horizon provided more scope for smoothing any output gap (employment). Full transparency of the policy and the data and reasoning underlying policy settings is required to gain the benefits of the alignment of market inflation expectations with the policy target.

The RBNZ’s development and adoption of inflation targeting was an important development in the pursuit of rule based monetary policy with floating exchange rates that accommodated flexible implementation. It swept the world of central banking. While the Fed did not adopt explicit inflation targets until 2012, it clearly pursued an implicit inflation target long before that.

Monetary stability, defined as price level stability, improved significantly, but exchange rate volatility increased. The Great Moderation of the 1990s and early 2000s that resulted from more stable domestic prices was followed by the Great Recession. The Great Recession of December 2007 to June 2009 highlighted the failure of inflation targeting to take account of asset price bubbles and “inappropriate responses to supply shocks and terms-of trade shocks”.[1]

What followed can only be described as a nightmare (largely because of the over leverage and other weaknesses in the U.S. financial system). After properly and successfully performing its function of a lender of last resort and thus preventing a liquidity-induced collapse of the banking system, the Fed went on to undertake ever more desperate measures to reflate the economy. These Quantitative Easings (QEs)—quasi-fiscal activities—have been widely discussed and have contributed little to economic recovery.[2]

The conclusion from the above history is that monetary policy is being asked to deliver more than it is capable of delivering. Central banks are generally staffed by very capable people, but they can never know all that they need to know to keep the economy at full employment as employers and jobs keep changing. The quality of forecasting models has greatly improved in recent years, but they remain unreliable. The policy strategy and intentions of the Fed and other inflation targeting central banks have become admirably transparent, but given the uncertainty of its next policy actions, markets remain spooked by every new data release and speech by Fed officials. Yet inflation in the U.S. and Europe remain below the 2% targets of the Fed and of the ECB.

Despite the huge increase in the Fed’s balance sheet, which banks are largely holding as excess reserves at the Fed, monetary growth in the U.S. averaged only about 5.5 to 6% over the past four years or about the same as its long run average (for M2). My assessment of the slow pace and modest size of the economic recovery in the U.S. is that regulatory burdens have discouraged investment while many internet related investments continue to drive down costs of many economic activity (a sort of unrecorded productivity increase).  Easy money is once again inflating asset prices (stocks and to a lesser extend again real estate).  But who knows for sure?

The idea that central banks can micro-manage monetary conditions to smooth business cycles is a conceit. In my opinion, central banks have given their price stability mandates their best shot and failed. The successful, countercyclical management of the money supply with floating exchange rates is simply beyond the capacity of mortals.

Return to a Hard Anchor

The Fed should give up its management of the money supply and return to a system of money redeemable for something of fixed value – a so-called hard anchor for monetary policy. This means linking the value of money to something real and managing its supply consistent with that value (exchange rate). Such regimes do not magically overcome an economy’s many and continuous resource allocation and coordination challenges, but by providing a stable unit in which to value goods and services and to evaluate investment options, and sufficient liquidity with which to transact, such regimes facilitate the continuous adjustments private actors need to make for an economy to remain fully employed and to grow.

But fixed exchange rate regimes, including the gold standard in one of its forms or another, have historically had their problems as well. These problems generally reflected one or the other of two factors. The first was the failure of the monetary authorities to play by the rules of a hard anchor, which is to keep the supply of money at the level demanded by the public at money’s fixed value. The pressure to depart from the rules of fixed exchange rates generally came from fiscal imbalances or mistaken Keynesian notions of aggregate demand management. However, even when central banks aimed actively to match the supply of its currency to the market’s demand with stable prices it proved beyond their capacity to do so.

The second source of failure came from fixing the value of money to an inappropriate anchor. When the exchange rate of a currency is fixed to another currency or to a commodity whose value changes in ways that are inappropriate for the economy, domestic price adjustments can become difficult and disruptive. Fixing the exchange rate to a single commodity, as with the gold standard, transmitted changes in the relative price of gold to prices in general, which imposed costly adjustments on the public.

These historical weaknesses of monetary regimes with hard anchors can be overcome by choosing better anchors and by replacing central bank management of the money supply with market control via currency board rules.

Currency board rules give control of the money supply to the market—to the public. As an example, a strict gold standard operated under currency board rules would increase the money supply whenever the public wanted more and was willing to buy it with gold at the fixed gold price of a dollar. If the public found it held more money than it wanted it would redeem the excess for gold at the same price.

I led the IMF teams that established the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina with currency board rules, and it functions in exactly this way. It has no monetary policy other than issuing or redeeming its currency for Euro at a fixed exchange rate in passive response to market demand. It has worked very well. I was also involved in establishing currency board rules for the Central Bank of Bulgaria, which has also enjoyed stable money ever since.

The hard anchor should not be just one thing. The relative price of any individual good or commodity will vary relative to prices in general. Thus a small representative basket of goods should be chosen for the anchor. Earlier proposals for broader baskets suffered from the assumption that buying and redeeming the currency should be against all of the items in the basket. That would be cumbersome and storage and security would be costly. Currency board rules should provide for indirect redeemability, by which the currency would be purchased with or redeemed for designated AAA securities (e.g., U.S. Treasury bills) at their current market value.

Exchange Rate Volatility or a Global Currency

A major cost of the current system of floating exchange rates with inflation or other targets is the uncertainly and wide swings of exchange rates. Over the last decade the USD/Euro exchange rate varied over 40 percent. The classical gold standard was associated with a flourishing of foreign trade in part because the gold standard was a world currency, which there for eliminated exchange rate risk. There would be considerable benefit to world trade, economic efficiency, and growth if all or most countries adopted the same hard anchor for their currencies. The International Monetary Fund’s SDR already exists for this purpose but would need to be modified in several important ways in order to operate under currency board rules and to change its valuation basket from a basket of currencies to a basket of goods.

Conclusion

Experience with monetary regimes with floating exchange rates has been mixed. Almost all major currencies have become more stable in the last three decades but at the expense of increased exchange rate and asset price volatility. The United State, as well as most other countries, would benefit from a return to a monetary system with a hard anchor, but fixed to the value of a small basket of goods rather than to just one, and whose supply is determined by the public’s demand via issuing and redeeming it indirectly for a liquid asset of comparable value according to currency board rules. The benefits of such a system would be increased the more widely it was adopted. One of the virtues of the gold standard was that it was global.

Reference

Warren Coats, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25

________________, “What’s Wrong with the International Monetary System and How to Fix it?” April 20, 2017. https://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/38/

Jeffrey Frankel. “The Death of Inflation Targeting”. Project Syndicate, May 16, 2012.

_____________________________________________

[1] Jeffrey Frankel. “The Death of Inflation Targeting”. Project Syndicate, May 16, 2012.

[2] See for example, Warren Coats, “US Monetary Policy–QE3” Cayman Financial Review January 2013.

Discussion of John Tamny’s: Who Needs the Fed?

John concludes that we do not need the Fed because the Fed has become irrelevant. He argues that the interest rate “set” by the Fed is not relevant for the rest of the economy and that the Fed’s influence on bank credit is unimportant because not much credit comes from banks anymore, and that in any event the Fed can’t really control money and credit. While I think that John and I agree on many of the basic propositions that he sets out in his book, I disagree with many of his specific statements and with all of the propositions in my opening two sentences above.  To be blunt, John reveals a shocking lack of understanding of how the Fed and monetary policy more broadly work. The book has three Parts: Credit; Banking; and The Fed. I will set out my agreement with John on some important broad principles and then quote only a few of the many statements I disagree with.

For starters, John, Dan [Dan Mitchel, the moderator of this debate between John Tamny and myself at FreedomFest] and I all agree that it is what government spends that determines the resources it has taken from us and thus limiting that spending to the essentials is more important than cutting taxes. Of course how the government takes our incomes to finance its activities is also important. Some taxes are worse than others. On the other hand, it is surely not true that anything the government spends reduces the economy’s output. Government provided public safety, national security, and contract enforcement increase private economic output.

We agree that bailing out banks is bad for the health and efficiency of the banking sector.

We agree that failure of private sector firms that can’t make a profit and the market’s reallocation of those resources to better uses is good for economic efficiency and growth and rarely happens in government.

We agree that the market should determine the supply of money whose value is fixed to something tangible. But many of John’s statements suggest that he does not understand what the Feds does and what it is mandated to do. I will have a lot to say about this shortly.

Credit

The first of the books three parts is about Credit. When I get past some unusual usage of the word Credit to what I think is John’s fundamental point, I agree with him that those borrowing to invest in the real economy can only acquire and invest real resources. They cannot build factories, buy equipment, hire and organize workers with money created by the Fed, though a sound currency and efficient payment system lowers to the cost of connecting savers and investors. At the end of the day, real investment requires the saving and provision of real resources. This is what economists call the “neutrality of money, the idea that in the long run a change in the stock of money affects only nominal variables in the economy such as prices, wages, and exchange rates, with no effect on real variables, like employment, real GDP, and real consumption.” [Wikipedia] Unfortunately, throughout his book John fails to distinguish between real and nominal magnitudes.

John states this in several ways: “The Fed can’t create credit” [p. 4] However, it is not helpful when John defines credit as real resources when he means wealth or capital. Quoting him again: “Never forget that credit is the resources created in the actual economy.” [p. 26] And again: “Credit is just the name for real economic resources.” [p. 87] But near the end of his book he reverts to a more traditional definition of credit as a loan: “Credit is access to real economic resources.” [p. 178] There is a big difference between saying that credit “is real resources” and saying that it is “access to real resources.”

John talks a lot about what it takes for firms to attract funding of their activities. He provides many interesting examples of shifting credit risks in the economy and the credit market’s response in shifting resources away from higher risks to more promising uses, but these examples have nothing to do with monetary policy or the Fed. The Fed is not a credit institution. It does not allocate credit in the economy. The Fed is a monetary institution, whose job is to provide our currency and regulate its market value. John does not seem to understand the difference.

Banking

“It will never be a lack of money that fells Amazon [or any other company]. Only a lousy strategy will take it down.” [page 98] I sort of agree, but John then mistakenly applies this thinking to banks, which have a legal and business obligation to back all of their deposit and other liabilities with assets of equal or greater value, i.e. they must have positive capital. They must be solvent. John is mistaken to say that: “Because banks never simply run out of money, lack of investor patience is what causes them to file for bankruptcy.” [page 98] While banks can borrow when they are short of funds (credit in the usual sense of the word) as long as lenders and depositor think they are solvent, deposit and interbank funding runs can occur when depositors think the bank is not solvent. Solvency means having positive capital. Bank capital is difficult to assess because many of its assets are loans and it is not possible to know for sure how may of these loans will be repaid in the future. The real world, practical challenge with banks is to determine when they become insolvent as promptly as possible to prevent their continued borrowing and deposit taking as their capital hole grows so that most depositors and other creditors can be repaid when the bank is liquidated. A bank that continues to operate when insolvent is a ponzi scheme.

John correctly attack’s Murray Rothbard’s claim that fractional reserve banking is fraudulent. When banks lend out some or most of what we deposit with them—so called fractional reserve banking—they are doing exactly what they say they will. There is nothing fraudulent about it. It does make banks vulnerable to runs, however, which is why central banks are empowered to be lenders of last resort. John focuses his discussion on whether banks hold enough reserves (liquid deposits with the central bank and cash in their vaults) for unexpected deposit withdrawals and notes that any credit worthy bank can borrow what ever it need for this purpose from other banks. He says little about bank capital, however, which is the basis of whether a bank is credit worthy in the first place. If the market suspects that the bank has little or no capital, it will not lend to the bank.

John’s rejection of the broadly accepted proposition that banks multiple the money created by the central bank into a much larger quantity of bank deposits is completely wrong, as is his implicit rejection of the Chicago Plan of 100% reserve requirements by saying that “Banks can’t pay to stare at or warehouse dollars—they would quickly go out of business or be acquired—so logically they lend them.” [page 87]. Of course they can. If they are providing a valuable safekeeping and payment function, they can charge for it. Who remembers to old days when banks levied a service charge on demand deposits? Rather than focus exclusively on reserve requirements John should focus on the role of capital requirements for protecting depositor money. Positive capital means that the value of a bank’s assets exceeds its deposit and other liabilities.

John’s attempt to disprove the money multiplier fails to reflect or understand the intermediary nature of banks. They sit between the savers and the investors; between depositors and borrowers. He illustrates his claim with four friends at a table, one with a $100 who lends 90 to the next friend who lends ten percent of that to the next one and so on mimicking the standard text book explanation of the creation of money by banks. The correct game would have the friend with the $100 depositing it with the imaginary banker in the center of the table. The banker then lends $90 to the next friend by recording a deposit liability to the second friend of $90. The two friends between them now have $190 in deposits with the bank, which now lends $81 to the third friend by creating a $81 deposit for the third friend, etc. The example reflects a 10% reserve requirement. For some reason John doesn’t get this very real world phenomenon. The creation of deposit money by banks is only inflationary if their growth exceeds the growth of the public’s demand for them. It is forgivable if Joe six pack doesn’t understand the money multiplier by banks, but it is shocking for someone writing about the subject to failure so completely to understand it.

Banks are one of many financial intermediaries lending other peoples’ money, but they are the foundation of the payment system. Capital protects depositors’ money from the occasional non-performing loan made with those deposits. Historically virtually every country in the world bailed out insolvent banks rather than let depositors lose money. This created terrible moral hazard as John notes. Deposit insurance has improved the picture and the US has closed thousand of banks without serious disruption, but not the biggest ones viewed as too big to fail.

My recommendation is to separate the payment from the lending functions of banks, requiring 100 % reserves on demand and savings deposits, and requiring equity (capital) to finance bank lending and its other investments. Thus deposits and the payment system would be risk free and require very little further regulation.[1] The intermediated lending would be all equity financed, like a mutual fund investment, and require very little further regulation as well, as its investors would have total skin in the game and could take whatever amount of risk they wanted as they would reap the rewards or suffer the losses. Losses of loans and investments would no longer threaten bank deposits and the payment system. There would no longer be a need for the Lender of Last Resort function of the Fed or other central banks. This is the Chicago Plan put forth during the great depression by such notable economists as Irving Fisher, Frank H. Knight, Lloyd W. Mints, Henry Schultz, Henry C. Simons, Garfield V. Cox, Aaron Director, Paul H. Douglas, and Albert G. Hart.

The Fed

Most central banks these days have the legal mandate to regulate the supply of their currencies so as to keep its value stable— the so-called price stability mandate. The Fed has a problematic “dual mandate” of maximizing employment and stabilizing prices, which I will not discuss further here. There are several basic approaches to fulfilling this price stability mandate, ranging from fixing the price of the dollar to gold at one end of the spectrum to targeting inflation with market determined, i.e. freely floating, exchange rates at the other end. The policy debate is or should be about which of the rules for managing the money supply would be best for the U.S.

John says that “Friedman was the modern father of monetarism, a theory of money that says the central bank should closely regulate its supply.” [p 136] Friedman said no such thing.

Monetarism says that, like every other good, the value of money is determined by its supply and demand. The demand for money comes from the public and has been empirically related to their incomes. The supply is determined by the central bank in accordance with the policy rule it adopts. The gold standard was one such rule. A fixed monetary growth rate rule, once advocated by Friedman, is another. Inflation targeting, now in vogue, is yet another.

John makes a number of statements that suggest that he understands none of this. He says that: “Production is the source of money.” [p 136] We can make sense out of this strange statement if we change it to say that production is the source of the demand for money. Given that demand, monetarism says that the price or value of money (its purchasing power) will be determined by its supply and its supply will depend on the policy rule the central bank follows. If the Fed creates more money than the public wants to hold, people will spend the extra money. But as John and I agree, spending such money doesn’t create the goods people want to buy. Thus a money supply that exceeds its demand will drive up the prices of goods and services. That is the monetarist story of inflation.

John goes on to say that: “Friedman viewed inflation solely as a money-supply phenomenon. Inflation was a function of too much money, as opposed to a decline in the value of money.” [p 136] I can’t make sense of this strange statement. The statement that “inflation was a function of too much money” is a statement about the cause of inflation. The final clause of John’s statement says that: “inflation was a function of…a decline in the value of money.” But inflation is a decline in the value of money by definition. So what does John mean? His effort to explain why these are difference seems to concern the allocation of money around the country. He says: “money migrates to where production is.” Yes it goes to where it is demanded. John confuses the markets role in allocating credit around the country with the Fed’s role in controlling the aggregate supply of money. It is shocking that someone who writes regularly on this subject fails completely to understand its basics. I cannot find any evidence that John understands the basics of monetary theory of the supply and demand for money and its price, i.e., its value.

Another indicator of John’s confusion comes from the first Part of the book when he compares the Fed’s lowering the fed funds rate to Nixon fixing gasoline prices below the market price. Fixing the price of gas lower than the market price reduces its supply and increases its demand and produced long lines at gas stations in the hope of tanking up before the station runs out. But the Fed does not fix the fed funds rate; it sets a target for it. The difference is profound. The Federal funds rate is determined in the market by banks. When the Fed reduces its target for the Fed funds rate it increases its supply of liquidity to banks so that supply and demand force the interbank rate down. John repeats this fundamental misunderstanding throughout the book. In order to emphasize the importance of the distinction between fixing the Fed funds rate and targeting it, let me in Donald Trump fashion, repeat the point. The Fed does not fix the Fed funds rate. It enters the market as a buyer or seller of t-bills in order to increase or reduce the supply of bank reserves in order to stimulate the market to move the rate to the Fed’s target value.

John repeatedly describes the folly of the Fed trying to increase the money supply in Baltimore or Cincinnati to stimulate growth there, as markets will attract it away to healthier areas that demand it. He repeatedly discusses money as if it is credit. The Fed does almost no lending and then only to banks temporarily short of liquidity. When the Fed wants to lower the Fed funds rate in the market, it buys U.S. treasury bills from the market. The transactions (so called open market transactions) take place in New York but the sellers of these t-bills to the Fed are scattered all over the country and the newly created money is deposited in the sellers banks all around the country. John failures to reflect a basic understanding of how monetary policy works.

John’s misunderstanding of how the Fed operations is further illustrated in his following statements: “The Federal Reserve… proceeded to borrow reserves from the banking system so that it could buy trillions worth of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage back securities…. The Fed has credit to allocate only insofar as it extracts it from the real economy.” [p 149] This is completely wrong. The Fed supplied reserves to the banking system by buying Treasuries with money it created. Understanding this is absolutely fundamental to understanding what central banks do. John documents over and over again that he does not understand these basics.

John and I are both skeptical of the Fed’s ability to managing its monetary policy (the fed funds rate and/or the money supply) so as to smooth out business fluctuations while maintaining a stable value of the dollar. We both think that keeping short-term rates near zero for so long has been a mistake. In the long run, monetary policy determines the price level and its rate of inflation, not full employment and real income. John and I agree that the health of the economy, or its lack of it, is much more the result of stifling regulations, not monetary policy.

These suggest that the Fed would do better to adopt a different policy strategy or rule. John suggests that we can do away with banks and the Fed altogether, but says almost nothing about their replacements. I favor a supply of money determined by market demand whose value is fixed to a basket of goods. The Fed would supply currency under currency board rules whenever people wanted it and paid its official price and could redeem it at its official price, i.e. the market value of its valuation basket, if they had too much of it. In the case of the gold standard the only good in the valuation basket was gold, whose price is not as stable as would be a basket of goods. This proposal is discussed in my Real SDR Currency Board and other articles. Unfortunately you will not find John’s proposal for determining the money supply in his book.

John’s arguments that we do not need the Fed because it has no (or only negligible) affect on market interest rates and credit and because the Fed and banks cannot create money, are wrong. While interbank interest rates (the Fed funds rate) are a tiny fraction of all interest rates, market arbitrage insures that all interest rates are related to each other given the unique risks and characteristics of individual borrowers and classes of borrowers and of the appetites for risk of lenders. The Fed can and does “print money” expanding the currency held by the public and bank reserve deposits with the Fed (so called base money) and banks can and do multiply this base money into a much larger supply of money (currency and bank deposits) by lending it. While in the long run these activities of the Fed and banks only affect the value of money (inflation) with no affect on the real economy, they can and do have important real economy affects for good or ill in the short run. The question we need to answer is what monetary policy rules should the Fed adopt and follow in order to best fulfill its price stability and full employment mandate.

[1] “Changing direction on bank regulation” Cayman Financial Review, April 2015

Postscript

A few Booboos

“Housing is not investment…. Housing is consumption” [p 113]   Buying a house is an investment (it is a capital good). Living in or renting it is consumption.

“The Fed can’t create the credit that is economic resources” [p. 159] No but it can create money.

The Fed believes “that economic growth is the cause of inflation” [p. 159] Throughout John fails to distinguish real and nominal magnitudes (real exchange rate vs. nominal exchange rate; real interest rate vs. nominal interest rate; real income vs. Nominal income; real quantity of money vs. nominal quantity of money, etc.). Real economic growth with a constant money supply will cause deflation. Nominal economic growth when real income is constant is all inflation, etc.

“For those who still believe we need the Fed to keep a lid on the ‘money supply,’ what can’t be stressed enough is that our central bank cannot control that supply.” [p. 161] Not true.

References

Coats, Warren, 1982   “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982) (reprinted in Spanish in Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos Boletin, Vol. XXIX, Numero 4, Julio–Agosto de 1983).

1983, “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

2009, “Time for a New Global Currency?” New Global Studies: Vol. 3: Issue.1, Article 5. (2009).

2011, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25

2014, “Implementing a Real SDR Currency Board”

_____. Dongsheng Di, and Yuxaun Zhao, 2016, Why the World needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor, http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/34/

 

 

A Modest Proposal—Helicopter Money and Pension Reform

It is possible to fix the bankrupt Social Security System and the Federal Reserve’s failure to achieve its inflation target painlessly. Yes, really.

The Fed has failed to raise inflation to its 2% target because over regulated banks can’t find over regulated firms wanting to borrow and invest. As a result, the increases in the Fed’s base money from its Quantitative Easing and other efforts to stimulate the economy has piled up as bank excess reserve deposits at the Federal Reserve Banks.[1] If the Fed pushes too hard (e.g., by lowering the interest it pays on these bank reserves, potentially even to negative levels) it feeds asset price bubbles (stock and housing prices), which do great damage when they burst.[2] If the Fed just printed more money and sprinkled it around to the general public—what Milton Friedman called helicopter money—there is no doubt that the public would spend more and drive up prices.

Leaving aside whether it is really a good idea to create a steady 2% rate of inflation, there is an easy way of doing it that would also facilitate badly needed reform of the government’s retirement system. Contrary to the myth that our Social Security pensions reflect what we paid in (saved) to the system, Social Security pension payments are now fully pay as you go. This means that the revenue from payroll taxes approximately matches the outflow for current pensions, i.e. nothing is being saved for the future. As our population continues to age and the number of retired pensioners increases relative to the shrinking number of workers paying into the system, the modest amounts that have been accumulated in the Social Security “Trust Fund” will be drawn down to zero in about 15 years at which time the government will not be able to meet existing promises.[3]

The following proposal combines helicopter money sufficient to bring the inflation rate to its target with badly needed reform of our government pension system. Under this proposal all individuals will receive a minimum government guaranteed pension for life whether they paid in anything or not. This might be implemented as part of a Friedman like negative income tax and other badly needed tax reforms,[4] or stand alone. Before retirement, individuals who are working but with incomes below the poverty level (to be politically established) will not pay a wage tax as they do now. The subsequent pensions of such people will be paid with helicopter money (the Federal Reserve will print the money to buy government bonds sufficient to finance these expenditures). All workers with incomes above the poverty level will be required (as they are now) to set aside the amount of income needed to finance their minimum guaranteed pension on a fully funded basis. They are free to save more if they would like a higher pension. The funds set aside must be invested in government licensed and approved private pension funds chosen by each worker rather than in the almost fictitious Social Security Trust Fund.

This would establish the three pillars of good pension policy proposed by the World Bank in 1998: a means tested minimum pension financed by the government’s general revenue, a mandatory minimum pension paid for and privately invested by all working individuals, and additional, optional, supplemental retirement saving privately invested. Such a model was first adopted in Chile over 35 years ago with great success. Central and Eastern European countries have adopted similar models as part of their transition from centrally planned to market based economies. Financing income subsidies to the poor from general revenues (via printing money), and a user fee approach to mandatory saving (mandatory saving matched to the actuarial value of the pension received), conforms more closely to the principles of good tax policy.[5] The alternative sometimes proposed of raising the income cap on the payroll tax is closer to general revenue financing (if the government guaranteed minimum is only paid to the poor), but leaves out non-wage income and thus fails the good tax criteria.

As new workers would be truly saving for retirement, their savings would not be available to finance those currently retired, as is now the case with our pay as you go system. Thus transitional arrangements will be needed (for several decades) to deal with existing unfunded promises. If the promises remain unchanged, the money to pay for them will have to come from somewhere (higher taxes or reduced defense or other expenditures). Usually, in such cases the government spreads the burden around (burden sharing). Two simple and sensible changes to the current promises would absorb the greater part of the shortfall. The first is to adjust the pensionable retirement age to the fact that the average person lives much longer than when the current retirement ages were fixed. People are living longer and can (and most would like to and do) work longer. The other is to change the index to people’s pensions from a wage index (which generally increases pensions in real terms over time) to the cost of living (CPI), which would preserve their real value against any inflation over time.

For today, this means that the wage tax on the poor would be abolished and paid for with new Fed money that would thus be put in the hands of those who would spend it, increasing employment (though we are really at full employment now) and/or wages and prices. It would both raise inflation a bit and launch a genuine, long over due pension reform.

[1] “US Monetary Policy–QE3” Cayman Financial Review, January 2013

[2] “The D E Fs of the Financial Markets Crisis” CATO Institute, September 26, 2008.

[3] https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/saving-social-security/

[4] http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2009/07/07/US-federal-tax-policy/

[5] http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2013/07/12/The-principles-of-tax-reform/

Economics Lesson: Is deflation bad?

Fortunately the key insights about inflation or deflation are fairly intuitive and easy to understand. Stable prices—i.e., zero inflation—is best, fully anticipated inflation (or deflation) is second best, and inflation/deflation surprises are bad. If you would like a bit more detail, read on.

Inflation refers to the rate at which the value of money (average prices usually measure by a consumer price index—CPI) changes over time. Zero inflation, constant purchasing power of a currency over time in its local market (e.g. the value of the US dollar in the US), is best because all of the other factors impacting the supply and demand for individual goods that potentially change their prices relative to other goods and services can be expressed in terms of a constant unit account, a constant measuring rod. This makes comparing prices stated in that unit of account, especially over time, much easier. Imagine if the length or weight of something had to be expressed in units of weights and measure that themselves were always changing. Economic resources are better allocated to the satisfaction of public demand when the relative scarcity of each good and service can be clearly discerned. Decisions about the allocation of resources (whether to build a new factory to produce a new product or more of an old one and/or to hire more workers, etc.) are necessarily forward looking. The entrepreneurs’ question is what will people pay for something next year and the year after and what will it cost to produce it and how does this compare with producing something else. This is more difficult to do when the forecast of prices need to mix in the changing value of the currency in which they are stated.

However, a decent second best is a rate of inflation (positive or negative) that is steady and predictable. The inflation target of 2 percent chosen by many central banks, if reliably achieved, provides an example. If the inflation rate is fully and correctly anticipated, whether positive or negative, all other relative prices, including interest rates and wage contracts, can and will take the anticipated rate into account when setting prices in contracts for the future (e.g., a wage contract). If borrowers and lenders are willing to contract for a loan for five years at 3% per year with zero inflation in the value of the money borrowed and repaid, they would both be willing to undertake the same loan at 5% if they both expected inflation of 2% per year over those five years. If that expectation were rather uncertain, a suitable risk premium would need to be added to the interest rate. If everyone expected with certainty a 2% deflation over the same period, the loan would carry a 1% nominal rate. In both of these examples, the so-called real rate of interest—the rate adjusted for inflation—would be 3%. Thus, modest deflation does no harm if everyone fully and correctly anticipates it.

As an aside for the more advanced students, Milton Friedman explained why a fully anticipated, mild deflation was actually good because it would reduce or eliminate the opportunity cost of holding money and thus encourage people to hold larger cash balances on average without any cost to themselves or society. The money we hold in our wallets or nightstands or in our checking accounts at the bank is like any other inventory of goods that shop keepers keep on their shelves. Without an adequate inventory of what they sell, they would occasionally run out and miss some potential sales. But it cost money to hold an inventory of something. The cost can be measured by the interest you could have earned investing the money you spent to acquire the inventory (called “opportunity cost” by economists), plus any storage costs. Deflation reduces the opportunity cost of holding money by generating a real return from holding it (it is worth more in the future).

Unanticipated inflation, however, is bad because contracts written in dollar terms (so called “nominal” terms) will turn out to have a different real value than was expected. Normally a voluntary contract benefits both parties to it; it is win win. But when the inflation outcome was not anticipated, it will produce unexpected winners and losers. Debtors benefit from unanticipated inflation and creditors lose. More to the point in our current, over indebted environment, a deflation that was not anticipated when the money was borrowed, will increase the real value of the money that must be repaid. Lenders will benefit from the unexpected windfall only if borrowers actually repay their loans. But the unexpected increase in the real value of the debt being repaid may result in a larger number of defaults. So central banks are trying to avoid deflation, or more accurately are trying to achieve their inflation targets (generally 2%) in order to avoid making the economy’s excessive indebtedness even worse.

The above discussion concerns the value of a currency in its own country. But given the very extensive commerce across borders and the fact that most countries use their own currencies, cross border payments require exchanging one currency for the other. If the exchange rates of all currencies were fixed and never changed, the above analysis would apply globally as well. However, the exchange rates of many currencies, such as the USD/Euro rate, vary continuously and sometimes very significantly. The USD/Euro rate has fallen (i.e., the dollar has appreciated) 30% in the last 12 months (on April 9, 2015). This represents an enormous and very disruptive shock to the value of US trade with Europe, increasing the cost of our exports and reducing the cost of imports from Europe by very large, unpredicted amounts. Following the collapse of the gold standard, which fixed the exchange rates of most currencies, in the early 1970s, a costly financial market of insurance against exchange rate movements has developed. The total daily value of FX related transactions (spot, forwards, swaps, options) are estimated at around 4 trillion US dollars. Yes, that is daily and yes, that is trillions. These added costs of international trade would be eliminated if all or most countries returned to credibly fixed exchange rates or better still one globally used currency. The enormous gains in the standard of living from this trade could be extended even further.

The world is now “blessed” with a variety of monetary policy regimes. All of them aim in one way or another to deliver stable value for their currency either domestically or relative to another currency. The major industrial countries generally target inflation domestically and allow the exchange rates of their currency to float against other currencies. Many smaller countries fix or target the exchange rate of their currency to the US dollar or the Euro or the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) thus causing the domestic values of their currencies to reflect the inflation rates of the currency to which they are fixed.

Two major reforms would establish a global monetary system with stable money (zero inflation). The first would be to change the IMF’s international reserve asset, the SDR, from a currency whose value is determined by a basket of key currencies (the USD, Euro, UK pound, and Japanese Yen) and allocated on the basis of political decisions, to a currency whose value is determined by a basket of real goods that is issued on the basis of market demand in accordance with currency board rules. These reforms are explained in more detail in earlier articles such as https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/the-u-s-dollar-and-the-sdr-as-international-reserve-currencies/ and https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/a-hard-anchor-for-the-dollar/. The above reforms in the SDR would include an international agreement to replace the US dollar and Euro in international pricing and payments with the reformed SDR, which I call the Real SDR.  http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/

The second reform would follow naturally given the greater stability of the Real SDR. Countries would fix the exchange rate of their national currencies to the Real SDR or replace them all together with the Real SDR (the equivalent of dollarization). If all or most countries did this, the world would enjoy the benefits described above of a global currency with a completely predictable and stable value relative to a “typical household consumption basket” across the globe. It is worth fighting for.

Printing Money

Isn’t that just printing money?  Here is a quick, and hopefully simple, primer on what central banks do.

Central banks print money. They are responsible for issuing a country’s legal tender (banknotes and bank deposits with the central bank) and regulating its value. Most of what we call money is actually privately produced (deposits at commercial banks, credit and debit cards, paypal, etc.) but tied to the money printed by each country’s central bank by the public’s demand that it be redeemable for the central bank’s money. There are a few exceptions to this demand by the market, such as bitcoin (see: the-rise-of-the-bitcoin-virtual-gold-or-cyber-bubble), but they shall ever remain unimportant fads. There is never a question about whether central banks print monetary or not. It is their responsibility to do so. This is as true for a pure gold standard or other fixed exchange rate monetary regimes, as for the variety of fiat money regimes (from monetary targets to inflation targets to flying by the seat of their pants day-to-day).

The important and proper question about a central bank’s behavior is what guides its decisions about when and how much money to print. A secondary question is what does it buy when it issues money (there are no helicopters that drop it from the sky)?

The gold standard: Under a gold standard the central bank buys gold with the money it prints and is legally bound to buy that money back with gold at the same price whenever anyone holding its money wants to redeem it. While this is still printing money, the supply is determined by the preferences of the market (each and every one of us) to hold and use that money. Such central banks have no monetary “policy” in the usual sense. They passively supply whatever amount of money the public demands.

Fiat money: If the central bank issues money with no obligation to redeem it for anything in particular nor at a particular price, its value is determined in the market by its supply and demand. The amount supplied by the central bank relative to the market’s demand for it will determine is value (the price level). Monetary policy consists of the decisions made by central banks that determine the amount of the money they supply and manner in which they supply it.

The public’s demand for money reflects its convenience for making payments, its expected value when exchanged for goods and services, and the opportunity cost of holding it (inventory costs, i.e., the interest rate that could have been earned on holding wealth in other forms). Rapidly changing payment technology (debit/credit cards, Paypal, e-money, etc.) has a profound impact on this demand. There is a vast academic literature on this subject. Unlike any other good or service money’s value derives solely from what it can be exchanged for or more specifically from the economy it brings to exchange/trade.  Fiat currency is always useable and thus “redeemable” for the payment of taxes and other obligations to the government that issued it. These obligations are denominated (valued) in the same units as the currency. These guaranteed uses of fiat money anchor its demand and thus value in the same way that the demand for gold for jewelry and other non-monetary uses anchors its value. Bitcoin has no alternative use and thus has no anchor to its value.

Central banks have learned the value of establishing clear rules for issuing money, such as targeting the rate at which the money supply (by one definition or another) grows, or targeting nominal income, or inflation. These rules guide how much money they “print.” They also influence the public’s demand for money by informing its expectations of the central banks actions. The policy regime adopted—rule—determines the behavior of the money supply and thus its value (or visa versa). The supply of bitcoin also follows a well-defined rule, but its demand is unanchored. The fact that the central bank is printing money is irrelevant by itself.

A secondary consideration is what it is that the central bank buys with the money it prints. Under a gold standard it buys gold. Under a fiat money standard central banks generally buy government securities because these securities are generally of unquestioned safety and in most countries have the deepest and most liquid secondary markets. Central banks also traditionally adhere to a “bills only” policy, i.e., they buy short-term government security, in order not to interfere with the market’s determination of the term structure of interest rates, i.e. the relationship of interest rates on securities with longer maturities relative to those with shorter maturities. In a free market, rates on longer maturities are determined by the expected value of overnight rates over the period in question plus a risk premium for the uncertainty over the behavior of overnight rates.

Whatever the ultimate or intermediate targets of monetary policy, most central banks in recent decades have pursued them by targeting a short-term interest rate, their so-called “operating target.” The Federal Reserve targets the overnight interbank rate, the so-called “federal funds rate,” as its approach to targeting the money supply, nominal income, or inflation. Given all other market factors, a particular fed funds rate target will result from and result in a particular rate of growth in the money supply.

Because most money and related means of payment are privately produced by banks or is ultimately settled through banks, and because banks only keep a small amount of the money produced by their central banks for which bank deposits are redeemable (the so-called “fractional reserve banking system”), central banks have also been given the role of insuring that banks have sufficient liquidity to function smoothly. They are mandated to lend to solvent but illiquid banks when banks need to convert loans into cash to accommodate deposit withdrawals (the so-called “lender of last resort” function).

As more and more central banks successfully adopted the techniques of inflation targeting and most of the rest fixed the exchange rate of their currencies to an inflation targeting currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the Euro, the world entered a long period dubbed “the great moderation.” However, the long period of very low interest rates following the bursting of the “dot com” bubble produced the housing price bubble in many locations in the U.S. and Europe. Its collapse in 2007-8 plunged much of the Western world into the long, Great Contraction.

Monetary Policy Plus (MP+):  In the last few years the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB) and other central banks have undertaken many non-traditional actions in an effort to help lift their respective economies out of recession. In the early days of the serious liquidity crunch following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the Fed, ECB, Bank of England and a few other central banks very successfully pumped needed liquidity into their financial systems by expanding the number of counterparties they would lend to, increasing the eligible collateral, and entering into currency swap arrangements to supply dollar liquidity to foreign banks.

However, after unblocking the flow of funds between banks and other financial firms, the Fed’s concern shifted to fighting deflation, then to reviving economic activity. After driving its operating target to almost zero, the Fed continued increasing monetary growth beyond the rate resulting from a zero fed funds target and dubbed it quantitative easing. However, the channels through which monetary policy is traditionally transmitted to the economy (interest rate, credit, asset price, portfolio/wealth effects, exchange rate channels) seemed ineffective. Thus, the Fed began to purchase non-traditional, financial instruments, such as Mortgage Backed Securities (MBSs) and longer-term government securities, in an effort to keep mortgage interest rates low and to encourage the flow of funds into the mortgage market and stimulating investment more generally. These quasi-fiscal policy measures do not square easily with the Fed’s legal mandates of price stability and employment.

With the Fed’s third program of quantitative easing it is now pushing on a string  (QE3: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/28/). It is attempting to stimulate an economy that lacks a clear policy environment that would encourage more investment rather than one suffering from inadequate liquidity. While market measures of inflation expectations remain very low, long periods of very low interest rates influence the capitalized value of income streams. A given monthly mortgage payment will purchase a more expensive house when interest rates are lower. What people and firms invest in is distorted toward more capital-intensive projects than are economically efficient and justified at normal rates of interest.  Pension funds and other endowments lose income that must be made up somehow (often by moving into riskier investments). Asset price bubbles emerge. On top of these economic risks, the Fed’s need to unwind its huge portfolio of securities (purchased by printing money) when the economy recovers more fully is becoming more and more challenging.

Moreover, the policies of one central bank can affect the exchange rate of its currency if its policies are not coordinated with those of other central banks. This can either improve or worsen the balance of payments between countries (balance of imports and exports). The very wide swings over the last decade in the exchange rate of the US dollar with the Euro, for example, cannot be justified by economic fundamentals and is very disruptive to trade and international capital movements. Recent monetary policy initiatives by the Bank of Japan raise such concerns.

In short, the problem is not that the Fed and other central banks are printing money. The problem is the amount they print and their conceit that they can do more to help the real economy than they really can, thus adding to the market’s uncertainty over the economic, policy, and financial environment in which their decisions to spend and invest must be made. The solution is to reestablish a hard anchor for monetary policy that allows the supply of money to be market determined (as proposed in my: Real SDR Currency Board, paper).

The fantasy of a purely private money that would overcome the weaknesses of government money, remains for the foreseeable future a utopian fantasy: “The Future of Money”. But those of you who enjoy fantasy, might enjoy the following story by Neal Stephenson: “The Great Simoleon Caper”.