Should central banks do emergency lending?

A barnstorming new paper from the Richmond Fed, written by its President Jeffrey Lacker and staff economist Renee Halter, argues that the Federal Reserve has drifted into doing too much credit policy to the detriment of its traditional goal of overall macroeconomic stabilisation.

In its 100-year history, many of the Federal Reserve’s actions in the nameof financial stability have come through emergency lending once financial crises are underway. It is not obvious that the Fed should be involved in emergency lending, however, since expectations of such lending can increase the likelihood of crises. Arguments in favor of this role often misread history. Instead, history and experience suggest that the Fed’s balance sheet activities should be restricted to the conduct of monetary policy.

The first step in their case is attacking the idea that the Fed was created to be a lender to specific troubled institutions or sectors:

Congress created the Fed to “furnish an elastic currency.”…In other words, the Fed was created to achieve what can be best described as monetary stability. The Fed was designed to smoothly accommodate swings in currency demand, thereby dampening seasonal interest rate movements. The Fed’s design also was intended to eliminate bank panics by assuring the public that solvent banks would be able to satisfy mass requests to convert one monetary instrument (deposits) into another (currency). Preventing bank panics would solve a monetary instability problem.The Fed’s original monetary function is distinct from credit allocation, which is when policymakers choose certain firms or markets to receive credit over others.

They go on to explain further the difference between monetary policy (providing overall nominal stability; making sure that shocks to money demand do not lead to macroeconomic instability & recessions) and credit policy (choosing specific firms to receive support and funds—effectively a form of microeconomic central planning):

Monetary policy consists of the central bank’s actions that expand or contract its monetary liabilities. By contrast, a central bank’s actions constitute credit policy if they alter the composition of its portfolio—by lending, for example—without affecting the outstanding amount of monetary liabilities. To be sure, lending directly to a firm can accomplish both. But in the Fed’s modern monetary policy procedures, the banking system reserves that result from Fed lending are automatically drained through off setting open market operations to avoid driving the federal funds rate below target.

The lending is, thus, effec-tively “sterilized,” and the Fed can be thought of as selling Treasury securities and lending the proceeds to the borrower, an action that is functionally equivalent to fiscal policy.

They go on to explain why Walter Bagehot provides “scant support” for the creditist approach to crisis management, while the facts of the Great Depression do not fit with the creditist story.

Finally, they note that even if there are inherent instabilities in the financial system—something far from proven—many of these are made substantially worse by central bank intervention in credit markets.

Financial institutions don’t have to fund themselves with short-term, demand-able debt. If they choose to, they can include provisions to make contracts more resilient, reducing the incentive for runs. Many of these safeguards already exist: contracts often include limits on risk-taking, liquidity requirements, overcollateralization, and other mechanisms.

Moreover, contractual provisions can explicitly limit investors’ abilities to flee suddenly, for example, by requiring advance notice of withdrawals or allowing borrowers to restrict investor liquidations. Indeed, many financial entities outside the banking sector, such as hedge funds, avoided financial stress by adopting such measures prior to the crisis.Yet, leading up to the crisis, many financial institutions chose funding structures that left them vulnerable to sudden mass withdrawals. Why?

Arguably, precedents established by the government convinced market participants of an implicit government commitment to provide backstop liquidity. Since the 1970s, the government has rescued increasingly large fi nancial institutions and markets in distress. This encourages large, interconnected fi nancial fi rms to take greater risks, including the choice of more fragile and often more profi table funding structures. For example, larger financial firms relied to a greater extent on the short-term credit markets that ended up receiving government support during the crisis. This is the well-known “too big to fail” problem.

I apologise for the length of the quotation, but the paper really is excellent. Do read the whole thing.

Kick the ‘wise men’ out of the Bank of England

In today’s City AM, newly-minted ASI fellow Lars Christensen (aka The Market Monetarist) writes on the ‘Carney rule’. The Carney announcement is a tiny step in the right direction, he says, but as long as the ‘wise men’ of the Monetary Policy Committee are running monetary policy, policy will be erratic and unpredictable, preventing adequate planning by firms and adding to market panic in economic downturns. Instead, we should have a strict rules-based system of nominal GDP targeting:

A much better rule would have been to commit to stabilising the level of nominal GDP (NGDP), a measure of aggregate demand, keeping market expectations of NGDP growth on a 4 or 5 per cent growth path. This should be combined with an open-ended commitment to expanding the money base to hit this target. This would avoid the nitty-gritty of the Carney Rule and be clearer and easier to communicate to markets.

Monetary policy based on the discretion of “wise men” leads to market uncertainty and panicky jolts as investors react to tiny changes in central bankers’ pronouncements. Replacing the MPC with rules-based policy would bring discipline and predictability to the Bank of England far beyond what was outlined yesterday.

I would prefer to have no Bank of England at all, with money emerging from the market as outlined by Hayek in 1976. Having said that, perfect is not the enemy of good — replacing the discretion of ‘experts’ with predictable, market-led rules would be a huge step in the right direction. If Carney’s new rule fails, it may come on to the agenda sooner than we think.

A question for market monetarists

Market monetarism, as propagated most prominently by Scott Sumner’s (excellent) blog The Money Illusion, argues that recessions come about due to a collapse in demand. This is a problem because prices cannot adjust downwards quickly. Instead of a costly adjustment period we can simply boost demand by announcing a target and credibly committing to do the necessary quantitative easing (buying gilts to inject money in the system) to achieve that target.

This makes a lot of sense. Markets are finding it hard to clear; we boost AD to put the situation back where it was; now markets find it easier to clear. But lots of the best market monetarists, including Scott, Lars Christensen and many others, argue that right now what we need is more stimulus, because the economy is still in a bad shape, and it is still due to a shortfall of demand.

Last Tuesday Professor George Selgin delivered an extremely interesting lecture at the Adam Smith Institute making the case for productivity driven deflation. He said he agreed with the market monetarists that there is “bad deflation”—the sort that means nominal rigidities stop markets from clearing—but there is also “good deflation”, from productivity improvements—and this is not associated with unemployment, stagnant or falling GDP, or any other cyclical issue.

After the talk I quizzed him on whether he agreed with the market monetarists that even though the ideal is a rule-based system, as opposed to the current discretionary way policy is set, right now the best discretionary policy is more easing, because that’s probably what the ideal rule would require.

Prof. Selgin disagreed, arguing that we didn’t need easier policy, and if you look at the graph above there’s at least apparent reason to agree with him. Nominal GDP—aggregate demand—is not only well above its pre-recession peak in the US, but is growing at an apparently steady rate, roughly in line with its long-term trend. If the high unemployment in the US is down to insufficient demand combined with nominal rigidities then why hasn’t a long period of higher-than-pre-crisis demand brought unemployment back down.

According to Selgin, policy uncertainty and pro-cyclical strictness in enforcing regulations (particularly risk-weighted lending rules that rate Greek bonds as zero but loans to small business at 100%) are holding firms back from investing their cash piles in capital and it is this that is stopping the robust recovery. He made the point very convincingly and despite trying hard to argue against it I couldn’t find a good reason to disagree, except that I hadn’t seen a good measure of the importance of these two factors so it was hard for me to compute how big their influence really was.

But many market monetarists—along with New Keynesians and most others—seem very sure that insufficient demand is the overriding factor holding back recovery, in the US as much as the EU, UK and Japan (where NGDP growth is further below trend). So my very genuine question is: upon what arguments and/or evidence do they rest this belief?


Monetary rules vs. central bank discretion

On Monday I attended a conference in Copenhagen on monetary policy regime change with Lars Christensen of Danske Bank, Sam Bowman, research director here, Anthony J Evans, economics professor at ESCP Europe Business School, and Martin Ågerup, president of Danish liberal think-tank CEPOS, among others. The discussions raised a huge number of interesting ideas, among which was the question of rules vs. discretion in monetary policy. We all agreed that a rule-based system would be a major improvement on the existing system.

The current monetary regime in the UK, and many other major economies, is known as flexible inflation targeting. Under flexible inflation targets, a panel of appointed “wise men” is tasked with keeping inflation close to a target rate—in the UK 2% measured by the consumer prices index. They set interest rates (and in exceptional times, asset purchases, known as quantitative easing) to control aggregate demand and through that the price level, and achieve their target. The flexible element of the policy is that they have leeway to decide when achieving the target straight away would cause more harm to the economy than the resultant above target inflation. It is this provision that explains the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee’s decisions not to tighten policy despite 40 successive months of above target consumer price inflation in the UK.

There are many problems with this framework—including looking narrowly at consumer prices, rather than all prices in the economy; targeting a rate instead of a level; and judging performance by actually achieved inflation instead of expected future inflation—but here I wish to focus in on the problems with allowing the MPC to decide when and how much to miss their target.

One obvious problem with discretion, as opposed to rules, is that it can be unclear exactly what rate-setters will do in response to shocks. Firms have to worry not only about unexpected changes in market conditions but also unexpected macroeconomic response to these changes. Hence the feverish market interest in a press conference from Mario Draghi or Ben Bernanke, with intense focus on minute changes in tone or wording of statements. Hence the massive market shifts on central bank policy decisions. Measures of economic policy uncertainty have risen to volatile highs, and such uncertainty is widely believed to stymie investment, arguably the most important constituent of national income for staging an economic recovery.

A perhaps more fundamental problem with discretion as against rules is the huge amount of knowledge it assumes the nine-member MPC can amass and act upon. The optimal response to a supply shock, as Bill Woolsey explains in detail will depend on the demand and supply elasticities in that and other markets, not to mention guessing when and in which markets the shocks will hit. So even if an omniscient and perfectly benevolent despot could set the optimal policy with discretion, a rule-based system could be the best—or least bad—actually possible policy.

Allowing central bankers to decide when to hit their target is just allowing central bankers to decide whatever they think is best, and as Woolsey says, it’s completely unsurprising that they come out generally in favour of the system.