A miracle cure for central bank impotence

Are central banks ever unable to create inflation? The question may seem absurd – why would we ever want them to create more inflation?

The typical answer is that deflation can be a lot worse than inflation. But this ignores the fact that prices can fall simply because we can produce things more cheaply. Falling oil prices mean cheaper production, which should mean cheaper consumer products. That’s ‘good’ deflation.

But ‘bad’ deflation, caused by tight money, can be very harmful, and indeed is what Milton Friedman blamed the Great Depression on. A variant of this view, which looks at market expectations, blames expectations of deflation for the crisis in 2008. Those of us who think that nominal GDP is what matters – since contracts and wages are set in nominal terms – recognise that deflation can knock NGDP off-course and cause widespread bankruptcies and unemployment that would not have taken place in a more stable macroeconomic environment. (Free banking, say.)

So if inflation is sometimes desirable, when it prevents deflation (or collapses in NGDP), the power of the central bank to create it really does matter. That’s where Paul Krugman and the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard have clashed. In response to Krugman’s claim that central banks are impotent when their interest rates are zero, Evans-Pritchard writes:

Central banks can always create inflation if they try hard enough. As Milton Friedman said, they can print bundles of notes and drop from them helicopters. The modern variant might be a $100,000 electronic transfer into the bank account of every citizen. That would most assuredly create inflation.

I don’t see how Prof Krugman can refute this, though I suspect that he will deftly change the goal posts by stating that this is not monetary policy. To anticipate this counter-attack, let me state in advance that the English language does not belong to him. It is monetary policy. It is certainly not interest rate policy.

The piece is worth reading in full. I’m less convinced that ‘helicopter drops’ are actually needed now – if central banks said that they’d do as much conventional QE as it took to raise the inflation rate or NGDP level to x%, that may well be enough. But Evans-Pritchard’s basic point that central banks are never ‘out of ammo’ is what counts.

If QE avoided a Depression it doesn’t matter if it increased inequality

I’ve just come from a fascinating event with The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, on his recent Dispatches show, How the Rich Get Richer. In general the show was very good, and it’s extremely refreshing to see someone as thoughtful as Fraser get half an hour of prime time television to discuss poverty in Britain from a broadly free market perspective.

But I did take issue with the show’s treatment of Quantitative Easing (QE). Fraser described this as ‘perhaps the biggest wealth transfer from poor to rich in history’. The evidence for this was the rise in asset prices following QE, particularly in stock markets. Since rich people own assets and poor people don’t, the rich got richer and the poor didn’t.

That’s a common view and I understand it, but I think it’s wrong. 

Consider the Great Depression. When the money supply (and hence nominal spending) collapsed in the 1930s, the US economy did too, for reasons outlined in Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States.

Basically, contracts are set in nominal terms, so if nominal spending collapses, you’re left with a musical chairs problem where you have too little money to go round. So people are laid off and firms go bankrupt that would not have done so if money had remained stable across the board. Enormous amounts of wealth were destroyed unnecessarily because the government mismanaged the money supply. (It shouldn’t be managing money at all, in my view, but if it is we can at least try to minimise the harm it does.)

Perhaps inequality fell during this period because the rich lost proportionally more than the poor – they had more to lose, basically. But who cares? Everyone became worse off. That’s what matters.

The point of QE since 2008 has been to try and avoid a repeat of the 1930s by boosting the money supply. Its supporters wanted to avoid another massive destruction of wealth that would make everyone much worse off. 

Yes, QE boosted stock markets a lot. But there is nothing about QE that meant that banks or other investors would have to invest there – it’s not an ‘injection of cash into stocks’, as some people seem to believe. Stock markets rose because investors reckoned that QE would help avert a much worse Depression, which meant that firms would be (much) more valuable compared to a QE-less world where many of them may have gone bankrupt, or at least taken severe losses, instead.

Yes, that increased inequality because rich people own stocks and poor people don’t. But if everyone would have been worse off without QE, the extra inequality is beside the point. It’s people’s absolute wellbeing that should matter, if what you’re avoiding is a big Depression. You might as well think economic growth is bad because it makes everyone richer, but rich people a little more so.

Of course, it’s an open question whether QE actually did work as intended. Perhaps it made things worse, or did nothing at all. That is a question worth asking and it’s not one I can answer. But focusing on whether it increased inequality or not is beside the point – what matters is whether it prevented a Depression.

The ECB is fiddling while Europe burns

If not quite burning yet, the eurozone is kindling. For once, most people agree why: money is very tight.

The central bank’s interest rate is low, yes, but this is not a good measure of the stance of monetary policy. What matters is the interest rate relative to the ‘natural’ interest rate – ie, what it would be in a free market. It’s difficult to know what this natural rate is (as Hayek would tell us) but we can look at things like nominal GDP and inflation to help us guess. Both are way, way below levels that the market is used to. Deflation is back on the menu.

As Scott points out, whatever you think about the American or British economies since 2008, the Eurozone looks like a case study in central bank failure:

The eurozone was already in recession in July 2008, and eurozone interest rates were relative high, and then the ECB raised them further.  How is tight money not the cause of the subsequent NGDP collapse?  Is there any mainstream AS/AD or IS/LM model that would exonerate the ECB?  I get that people are skeptical of my argument when the US was at the zero bound.  But the ECB wasn’t even close to the zero bound in 2008.  I get that people don’t like NGDP growth as an indicator of monetary policy, and want “concrete steppes.”  Well the ECB raised rates in 2008.  The ECB is standing over the body with a revolver in its hand.  The body has a bullet wound.  The revolver is still smoking.  And still most economists don’t believe it.  ”My goodness, a central bank would never cause a recession, that only happened in the bad old days, the 1930s.”

. . . And then three years later they do it again.  Rates were already above the zero bound in early 2011, and then the ECB raised them again.  Twice.  The ECB is now a serial killer.  They had marched down the hall to another office, and shot another worker.  Again they are again caught with a gun in their hand.  Still smoking.

Meanwhile the economics profession is like Inspector Clouseau, looking for ways a sovereign debt crisis could have cause the second dip, even though the US did much more austerity after 2011 than the eurozone.  Real GDP in the eurozone is now lower than in 2007, and we are to believe this is due to a housing bubble in the US, and turmoil in the Ukraine?  If the situation in Europe were not so tragic this would be comical.

There is a point here. Economic news, by its nature, tends to emphasise interesting, tangible, ‘real’ events over things like central bank policy changes (let alone the absence of changes).

Of course that can be deeply misleading. The stance of money affects the whole economy (at least the whole economy that does business in nominal terms, which is pretty much everything except for gilt markets), and the Eurozone is experiencing exactly the sort of problems that the likes of Milton Friedman predicted that tight money would create.

Overall, the Euro looks like the most harmful institution in the world, except perhaps for ISIS or the North Korean govt. It may be unsaveable in the sense that it will never really be an optimal currency area, but looser policy (which free banking would provide) would probably alleviate many of the Eurozone’s biggest problems. Instead, what Europe has is the NHS of money – big, clunking and unresponsive to demand.

And the ECB seems wilfully misguided about what it needs to do. The only argument against this is that surely—surely—Draghi and co know what they’re doing. Well, what if they don’t?

An independent Scotland should use the pound without permission from rUK, says new ASI report

Today the Adam Smith Institute has released a new paper: “Quids In: How sterlingization and free banking could help Scotland flourish”, written by Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman. Below is a condensed version of the press release; a full version of the press release can be found here.

An independent Scotland could flourish by using the pound without permission from the rest of the UK, a new report released today by the Adam Smith Institute argues.

The report, “Quids In: How sterlingization and free banking could help Scotland flourish”, draws on Scottish history and contemporary international examples to argue for the adoption of what it calls ‘adaptive sterlingization,’ which combines unilateral use of the pound sterling with financial reforms that remove protections for established banks while allowing competitive banks to issue their own promissory notes without restriction. This, the report argues, would give Scotland a more stable financial system and economy than the rest of the UK.

According to the report, adaptive sterlingization would allow competitive, private banks to issue their own promissory notes backed by reserves of GBP (or anything else – including USD, gold, index fund shares or even cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). With each bank given powers to expand and contract its balance sheet relative to demand, this system would be highly adaptive to changes in money demand, preventing demand-side recessions in modern economies such as the ones that led to the 2008 Great Recession.

The report’s author, Sam Bowman, details Scotland’s successful history of ‘free banking’ in the 18th and 19th centuries and the period of remarkable financial and economic stability which accompanied it. Historical ‘hangovers’ from this period, like Scotland’s continued practice of individual bank issuance of banknotes, are still in place today, making Scotland uniquely placed for a simple transition to the system outlined in the report.

The report highlights evidence from ‘dollarized’ economies in Latin America, such as Panama, Ecuador and El Salvador, which demonstrate that the informal use of another country’s currency can foster a healthy financial system and economy.

Under sterlingization, Scotland would lack the ability to print money and establish a central bank to act as a lender of last resort. Evidence from dollarized Latin American countries suggests that far from being problematic, this constraint reduces moral hazard within the financial system and forces banks to be prudent, significantly improving the overall quality of the country’s financial institutions. Panama, for example, has the seventh soundest banks in the world.

The report concludes that Britain’s obstinacy could be Scotland’s opportunity to return to a freer, more stable banking system. Sterilization, combined with reform of Scottish financial regulation that:

  • removed government liquidity provisions to illiquid banks,

  • established mechanisms to ‘bail-in’ insolvent banks by extending liability to shareholders, and

  • shifted deposit insurance costs onto banks and depositors rather than taxpayers,

would improve standards and competitiveness in banking, while significantly reducing the prospect of large-scale bank panics and financial crises.

Commenting on his report, the Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The Scottish independence debate has repeatedly foundered on the question of currency, but if Scots look to their own history they will find that their country is a shining example of how competition in currency and banking can ensure a stable and effective banking system. Scotland’s free banking era was an economic and intellectual Golden Age, and its system of competitive note-issuance was recognised by such thinkers as Adam Smith as one of the root causes of the country’s prosperity during this time.

The examples of Panama and other dollarized Latin American economies are proof that countries can thrive when they unilaterally adopt another country’s currency. Combined with a flexible, adaptive banking system, the unilateral use of another country’s currency can instill a discipline in a country’s financial sector that neither a national currency nor a currency union can provide. Scotland’s banking system is almost uniquely primed for such a system of ‘adaptive sterlingization’. The path outlined in this paper would go almost unnoticed by the average Scot – until the next big economic shock, when they might just wonder why their system was so much more stable than that of the country they’d left behind.

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.