Inflationary Sweden

Sweden has outperformed Britain over the last few years because its central bank has been more inflationary than ours. David Smith says the opposite in discussing why Sweden has had an economic recovery and Britain has had stagnation and that concerns me.

Second, inflation matters. Falling inflation is the main hope for a sustained recovery in consumer spending, as the growth in real incomes is restored. The Bank lost control of inflation – it would argue because of factors outside its control – and the ecnomy has suffered in consequence. At the very time low inflation was needed, it was not achieved. We have to hope things will be different from now on.

This doesn’t really make any sense. In one way you can understand falling prices as “getting richer” and of course this would tend to make people buy more things. In another, much more useful and common sense of the word, inflation means prices and wages and rents increasing. This doesn’t necessarily have any particular effect on consumer spending one way or the other.

David praises the efforts of the Swedes in producing a strong recovery and low inflation. Hmmm… Here are the CPIs of Sweden and the UK.

Two things stand out for me.

First of all, both countries have experienced very similar inflation trajectories but the UK’s VAT rate changed thrice in the last few years. First down to 15%, then to 17.5% then to 20%. The Swedes on the other hand have had a 25% VAT since 1990. This gyrating VAT has made it appear that monetary policy has been running hot when it has in fact been too tight since 2008.

Secondly are the dips at the end. Now both the UK and Sweden’s inflation rates are falling both their economy are slowing. The UK from stagnation to decline, and Sweden from recovery to a stall. This is in direct contrast with David Smith’s argument.

Rather than too much inflation, we have too little. The UK is tightening fiscal policy rapidly and this is making people poorer because the monetary authority is not adequately offsetting this, as admitted by Adam Posen who should know.

The UK suffers first and foremost from a deficiency of demand. While I applaud David Smith for trying to take lessons from foreign countries he is misinterpreting the data.

Help Mervyn King or Sack Him

Mervyn King acts as though monetary policy is currently about right to hit a medium term inflation target of 2%, but insufficient to put Britons back to work. This is because his job is to provide price stability because this is meant to stabilise aggregate demand. Stabilising aggregate demand is something which was achieved very well until 2008 when it allowed it to crash and unemployment to rocket.

The mandate for price stability he has been given is not currently compatible with full employment. Merv has been told to target price stability and financial stability and although he has been relatively dovish in executing his duties, he has not been nearly forceful enough in explaining their shortcomings.

I don’t really want to call for Merv’s head because he seems to be more dovish than average for the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. I am beginning to think he is no longer capable of delivery the recovery we need. His recent comments indicate that he isn’t being clear enough why he can’t deliver the recovery people want. Today he gave evidence to the Treasury Select Committee that suggested we should be grateful for a decade of stagnation.

When this crisis began in 2007, most people did not believe we would still be here. I don’t think we’re yet half way through this. I’ve always said that and I’m still saying it. My estimate of how long it will take to recover is expanding all the time. We have to regard this as a long-term project to get back to where we were, but we’re nowhere near starting that yet. We’re in a deep crisis with enormous challenges.

In June he was one of the MPC members calling for further QE in response to the worsening situation in the Eurozone. He was entirely right to do so, even if it is the least he could have done that wasn’t nothing.

Regarding the stock of asset purchases, five members of the Committee (Charles Bean, Paul Tucker, Ben Broadbent, Spencer Dale and Martin Weale) voted in favour of the proposition [no extension of QE]. Four members of the Committee voted against the proposition. The Governor, David Miles and Adam Posen preferred to increase the size of the asset purchase programme by £50 billion to a total of £375 billion. Paul Fisher preferred to increase the size of the asset purchase programme by £25 billion to a total of £350 billion.

He has now admitted he is either unable or unwilling to do anything more. We know that there is plenty more the Bank could do because he voted for one of those things in June. We also know that there are other examples of Banks running highly accommodative policy through the exchange rate, some serious, some not so serious, which the Bank has not yet even attempted.

Mervyn King knows he isn’t going to do much about unemployment. A genuinely reflationary policy which put people back to work would threaten price stability and the Bank isn’t authorised to make that call, only the Treasury is. Since Meryvn is acting like he is happy current policy is on track but that the track includes at least five years of suffering we can help him by criticising him. He has to be enticed to explain to everyone that unemployment could be lower but that the Treasury doesn’t want it to be and that he can’t do anything on his own. Mervyn King wants more accommodative policy but is unable to deliver it with the current MPC and Bank mandate.

Rather than ignore this he should be making clear the limits of the mandate he has been given. If he is happy with doing nothing about unemployment he should be made to say so and ejected from his job, if he is unhappy he should make it clear his hands are tied unless the Treasury change his mandate. If he is unhappy with being honest about the limits of what he can delivery legally and what he can delivery technically we need a new Governor of the Bank of England.

In the US, as in the UK, criticism of central banks has predominantly been that monetary policy has been too loose. Monetary policy looks loose if you only look at interest rates but other indicators tell us monetary policy has actually been incredibly tight. Nominal GDP growth has been low all through the developed world, as has inflation. Even in the UK where inflation has been high a large portion of this has been due to tax increases not monetary looseness.

Criticism of the Fed from people like Scott Sumner and Paul Krugman have helped to shift the Overton Window, the bounds of acceptable discussion, to include the possibility that money is too tight. I don’t think it is viable to have somebody in charge of macroeconomic stabilisation who thinks it is acceptable to spend ten years recovering from a crisis. Either we help Meryvn come out of his shell or we help organise the coup of Threadneedle Street.

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PS The Treasury Select Committee need to update their website more quickly. Sir Merv’s testimony is still missing. The latest story is a push piece about Merv’s upcoming appearance, but there’s no link to the testimony now it has happened. I had to crib from the Telegraph.

Policy Pragmatism

What concrete step caused the British Pound to appreciate rapidly on the 18th April?

The correct answer is “we’ll never know what confluence of events caused that particular movement.” Any concrete answer should be ignored. But please allow me to tentatively suggest (tentative suggestion is fine) that the price of Sterling, and hence the stance of British monetary policy, was changed by news that Adam Posen had withdrawn his support for more Quantitative Easing. This unexpected action caused sterling to hit a 19 month high against the euro.

So when Chris says to Nick Rowe “that relying upon expectations to do work is to rely upon a weak lever” I am somewhat sceptical. Adam Posen changed monetary policy by changing the future expected path of monetary policy – his actions lessened the chances of more QE and brought forward rate rises and the unwinding of the Bank’s balance sheet – and the market acted accordingly.

A similar mechanism might be all that is required for NGDP to work. A credible commitment to change the path of future policy would have immediate effects, we know this because (I tentatively suggest) we have already seen it happen.

Similarly, if Chris agrees that a higher sterling reflects tighter Bank of England policy and if Chris agrees a looser policy would help create jobs – as the sentence “I don’t doubt that more QE – the likeliest tool of an NGDP target – would create some jobs” implies – then there is something illogical in his pessimism towards adopting NGDP targeting.

I don’t think it could come from the Bank; Andrew Sentence is completely unable to offer a credible commitment to NGDP level targeting. But were the Treasury to change the Bank’s mandate then it could commit to change the path of future policy easily. Thanks (!) to  New Labour’s habit of concentrating power ever more in the executive, this change could happen at any point because the Treasury is empowered to change the Bank’s mandate at will.

I don’t think you can accuse me of Policy Utopianism, as I said in my last post many problems would remain after the adoption of NGDP level targeting. If the Doctor’s creed is “first do no harm,” the economic policy maker’s should be “first pick up the free lunches.” To ignore monetary policy, as Chris often does, is to leave all-you-can eat buffets to one side. Pragmatism requires adopting policies that put what labour, capital and land available to work. Even a “small improvement” would be a huge improvement to thousands.

How to End this Depression!

Targeting the path of Nominal Gross Domestic Product (NGDP) is probably the most “fashionable” solution proposed for dragging the developed world’s economies out of depression. This post will refer to the UK, but lots more work has been done on the US from this perspective, particularly by Scott Sumner and David BeckworthBritmouse has blogged about NGDP from a UK perspective.

Real GDP is a proxy for our incomes adjusted for inflation, how well off we are. Nominal GDP is the same but refers to our incomes in cash terms. This nominal measure deviating from trend has been what has driven the wild swings in employment and production the developed world has seen since 2007.

NGDP matters because wages and debt are sticky.

Wages: NGDP can decrease if all other prices decrease with it, the relative prices between them will not change and apart from updating some menus nothing will have really changed. But it is incredibly hard to cut wages, look at the clustering of wage changes around zero in the below graph (via Paul Krugman). This means a decrease in NGDP relative to wages will throw people out of work as employers become unwilling to employ them at the prevailing nominal wage.

Debt: We care about what real resources we can consume but all our contracts are written in nominal terms. If I owe someone £10,000 then at some point I have to hand over some bits of paper, or packages of electrons, to someone for that amount. But, if NGDP grows below trend the total nominal size of the economy will be smaller than expected when I took out the debt, but the size of my debt will not. The real cost of my debt will have increased and this will work to depress the economy because this dynamic will affect a number of people.

If NGDP sinks below trend there are then at least two mechanisms which can act to depress an economy. [1] Has it sunk below trend? Yes it has.

Is off trend NGDP growth associated with weak real GDP growth? Yes it is.

Are changes from trend NGDP correlated with changes in employment? Yes they are.

That might be a little difficult to make out for some. So I zoomed in and inverted the unemployment figures. Are they correlated? Yes, and closely.

Let me tell you a story with a different ending to the one you know. The year 2007 began with NGDP growing to trend, and employment decreasing against the backdrop of international inflationary pressures and financial distress. NGDP reversed course and began to decline during the second quarter of 2007 as did employment, crucially this was before the Lehmann Brother’s bankruptcy and the ohmygodwereallgoingtodie stage of the financial crisis. Unemployment had already increased by nearly 200,000 after NGDP began declining but before the financial crisis began in earnest.

This doesn’t exhonerate any bankers, they put the Bank and Treasury in this position after all. But it does imply different priority for actions. Occupy Threadneedle Street, my friends, not the London Stock Exchange.

Scott Sumner and Ben Bernanke

Looking at the third graph you can see NGDP decline, recovery and stagnation correlating closely with decline, (mild) recovery and stagnation in UK employment. The Bank of England controls the country’s printing presses and hence the nominal economy and responsibility for this depression lies with the Monetary Policy Committee for doing too little to avert it and with the Treasury for doing so little to force them to do more.

In the UK and US the last couple of decades have seen NGDP grow at about 5% a year, and this nominal growth has been split between price increases and economic growth. In 2008 NGDP collapsed and we saw deflation, disinflation, and recession. To date NGDP has not yet recovered to trend, in fact it remains over 10% below trend – and this is our main problem.

Increase NGDP and employment, incomes and taxes would increase, many intractable problems would vanish (though many would not). There are risks and there are methodological problems, but there huge gains for everyone if they right policy is adopted and I want to do my part to try and make sure the right policy is adopted.

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[1] Data from here, I’ve used basic prices to strip out the effect of VAT jumping up and down

Austerity…

… is more than spending cuts. Contra Alex here discussing the spending of the US and UK state.

Government spending puts money and demand into people’s pockets; tax takes demand out. With regard to spending versus taxes, Adam Posen, for it is he, estimated that the US fiscal stance has contributed about 3 percent mroe to GDP growth compared to the UK’s fiscal stance. Posen’s techniques and figures are entirely uncontroversial.

This is in large part because the coalition decided a large VAT increase would be the best way to close the deficit despite lots of evidence on how damaging tax increases were during downturns.

Government may continue to buy boondoggles for people, if that’s how you want to look at it, but the Government has acted in an austere manner from a macroeconomic perspective.

Paging Adam Posen

Look Adam, we have had high inflation, but we’ve also had low (and negative) growth, nominal expenditures just aren’t accelerating in a dangerous way. The UK’s real GDP is a long way from peak because its nominal GDP is a long way from peak, and your job is to take charge of nominal GDP.

So please restate your commitment to a more expansionary monetary policy or we’re all screwed.

Signed,

Everyone.

Bad News

You know what I was saying yesterday about the Bank of England losing its nerve?

The minutes to the latest Bank of England meeting are out and the big news is that Adam Posen — a well-known dovish member of the board and frequent add advocate of more easing — does not currently support more QE.

The pound just instantly skyrocketed.

chart

Eep. Higher pound, tighter policy. Scarily the Bank didn’t even need to change interest rates to tighten policy, somebody just stopped saying something.

Printing money is okay, we do it all the time!

A lot of people get very worried by printing money. We can trace this line of thought back to the great political economists of the nineteenth century like JS Mill, but it finds itself common on the left and right these days.

You can print yourself into hyperinflation, or even accelerating inflation which can eat into living standards and cloud relative prices. But you can find yourself in deflation by failing to print enough. It is this second problem we have been closer to.

It is sad that people need reminding that hyperinflation impoverished Germany but it was relatively mild reflation which pushed them towards fascism. It seems sensible to me to fear deflation more than inflation. Better yet to find the happy medium, where the economy operates at its potential without prices rising too quickly or people being left on the scrap heap of unemployment.

Unfortunately I don’t know where to get the data for the UK, the UK National Statistics website is a joke, but here is some data for the US showing the potential for disconnect between money and prices.

For two decades, money increases along with economic activity, prices increase more slowly (i.e. we got richer). We reach 2008 and the monetary base explodes but prices do not. In fact, prices fall slightly just as the monetary base grows at over 100% a year.

What does this tell us? It tells us that simplistic talk about “fake credit”, “titanic disasters” or “defy[ing] economic gravity” is very wide of the mark indeed.

Quantitative Easing causes a lot of confusion. Normally a central bank promises to print as much money as is necessary to pin short term interest rates at a level predicted to produce stable prices and full output.

Around the world, our last crisis was so severe that short term interest rates went to zero and stayed there. The central bank’s method for controlling prices and output was suddenly impotent.

QE is an extension of this normal promise to print and spend to long term debt because rates on short term debt have already been pushed as low as it is possible to go.

QE is far from ideal, in fact it is the least a central bank can do once rates hit zero. But it is the only option currently on the table because many people currently resist a central bank even doing this minimum because they seem not to care about unemployment.

If you support more active policy to help people then it has to be both through QE and after QE. Only by supporting a suboptimal policy will the space ever open up for something more efficient for boosting growth but that is less popular with central banking’s elite.

Adam Posen WIN

Bank of England increases QE by £75bn

Britain’s interest rates-setting body voted to expand its purchases of gilts in an effort to bolster a badly flagging economy that is already showing signs of stagnation. At the same time rates were left unchanged.

The Bank said it would increase asset purchases by £75bn, taking the total to £275bn.

Good news. Although, I’d much rather the Bank just gave people money rather than swapped one asset for another.

If people want to hold money, and money is free to produce, then we can just give them money – we stop when expected future inflation gets too high and inflation predictions are not looking too high.

The alternative to giving people free money is that they spend less to increase the amount of money they hold. If everyone does this at the same time, we have a recession until people hold as much cash as they want to.

Avoiding this outcome is what monetary policy is for and I’m glad the BoE are taking their job seriously.

I am sceptical of QE because as far as I’m concerned monetary policy works better through expectations than through what a bank does in the here and now. So the £75bn extra doesn’t concern me too much other than as a good sign that Andrew Mellon Sentance is losing and that Adam Posen is gaining the upper hand.