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.

Voxplainer on Scott Sumner & market monetarism

I have to admit that I usually dislike Vox. The twitter parody account Vaux News gets it kinda right in my opinion—they manage to turn anything into a centre-left talking point—and from the very beginning traded on their supposedly neutral image to write unbelievably loaded “explainer” articles in many areas. They have also written complete nonsense.

But they have some really smart and talented authors, and one of those is Timothy B. Lee, who has just written an explainer of all things market monetarism, Prof. Scott Sumner, and nominal GDP targeting. Blog readers may remember that only a few weeks ago Scott gave a barnstorming Adam Smith Lecture (see it on youtube here). Readers may also know that I am rather obsessed with this particular issue myself.*

So I’m extremely happy to say that the article is great. Some excerpts:

Market monetarism builds on monetarism, a school of thought that emerged in the 20th century. Its most famous advocate was Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman. Market monetarists and classic monetarists agree that monetary policy is extremely powerful. Friedman famously argued that excessively tight monetary policy caused the Great Depression. Sumner makes the same argument about the Great Recession. Market monetarists have borrowed many monetarist ideas and see themselves as heirs to the monetarist tradition.

But Sumner placed a much greater emphasis than Friedman on the importance of market expectations — the “market” part of market monetarism. Friedman thought central banks should expand the money supply at a pre-determined rate and do little else. In contrast, Sumner and other market monetarists argue that the Fed should set a target for long-term growth of national output and commit to do whatever it takes to keep the economy on that trajectory. In Sumner’s view, what a central bank says about its future actions is just as important as what it does.

And:

In 2011, the concept of nominal GDP targeting attracted a wave of influential endorsements:

Michael Woodford, a widely respected monetary economist who wrote a leading monetary economics textbook, endorsed NGDP targeting at a monetary policy conference in September.

The next month, Christina Romer wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for the Fed to “begin targeting the path of nominal gross domestic product.” Romer is widely respected in the economics profession and chaired President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors during the first two years of his administration.

Also in October, Jan Hatzius, the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, endorsed NGDP targeting. He wrote that the effectiveness of the policy “depends critically on the credibility of the Fed’s commitment” — a key part of Sumner’s argument.

But read the whole thing, as they say.

*[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

QE boosts equities by boosting fundamentals

Many people suggest that the recovery in equity prices since 2009-2010, seen around round the world but particularly in the American NasdaqS&P500 and DJIA, does not represent a general economic improvement. Instead, they believe that these numbers are simply being buoyed by new money pumped into the system. I don’t think this argument holds, and I will attempt to explain why.

First let’s consider why we think people hold equities. Essentially, people hold equities because they expect a given real return for a given risk profile. In our simplest model, people hold portfolios of assets based on their risk tolerance, their subjective judgements over probabilities, and their preferences. Adding in banks, insurers, pension funds and so on makes the overall picture more realistic, but doesn’t change our theory much. People pick financial intermediaries that hold the assets according to our preferences—the intermediaries add value through scale, or through providing a payments system and settling accounts.

Why might electronic money printing (which we call “quantitative easing” or QE) affect equity prices?

Well, firstly, we might not expect an effect from quantitative easing under one circumstance. QE increases the amount of narrow money we have—that is the number of notes, coins and bank reserves in the system. Generally we think broad money—which includes bank accounts people can debit or write checks on, and is much, much larger—is what interacts directly with the real economy. The ratio of broad money to narrow money is called the money multiplier, and usually a rise in narrow money leads to an even bigger rise in broad money—but this multiplier is not stable. It’s at least possible (although not historically typical) that a rise in narrow money could be completely counteracted by a fall in the money multiplier.

But assuming this doesn’t happen, there are three reasons why QE might boost equity prices. First would be because it increases inflation and the future price level. If prices rise, cash is worth less, so relative to a given nominal amount of cash, all things being equal a given equity is worth more. In other terms, the firms’ nominal expected returns would rise.

The second reason is that in a depressed economy monetary easing like QE may boost real growth, which we would expect to raise any given company’s expected real returns. It might also reduce the risk of very bad economic outcomes. Since equities are riskier than bonds, gilts and cash they pay a risk premium to those who hold them—a higher return (lower price) to compensate for this. If risky outcomes in general become less likely, these risk premia might narrow, making equities more desirable and expensive.

The third reason QE might raise stock prices is because it increases overall social wealth, and thus may lead to greater risk-tolerance overall, if people are willing to bear more risk as they get wealthier, and thus shift towards riskier assets like equities.

In each of these three, the jump in equity prices comes from fundamental factors. One could certainly drive up stocks by creating lots of inflation, but we can easily check if that’s what’s happening by looking at inflation. Any real/relative growth in equities would refute that explanation. In contrast, real growth, reduced risk and shifted preferences due to extra wealth are all legitimate reasons for higher equity prices.

Accounts of why QE buoys stocks without improving fundamentals (and hence part of the argument that stock indices are not good proxies for economic health) tend to rely on a narrative that QE “flows into equities”. But as explained, people try to hold their wealth in the portfolio that fits closest to their preferences. If QE money did “flow into equities” then people would now be holding more of their wealth in stocks than they wanted to—they would rapidly rebalance their portfolio. Typically people needn’t even do this themselves, because their pension fund will do so for them. QE has to improve the fundamental factors in order to boost equities.

What’s the true free market monetary policy?

Let’s imagine we are in a world where central banks are given key roles in the macroeconomy, and have been for decades or even centuries in almost every country. In this imaginary world, studies into the relative efficacy of free banking regimes have been undeservedly overlooked, and the orthodoxy among major economists, even ones otherwise sympathetic to free markets is that they are a bad idea. Major policymakers, let’s imagine, are completely unaware of the free banking alternative, and most even use the term to mean something completely different. Proposals to enact free banking have not been mentioned in law making chambers for decades or centuries, if at all. It has not been in any party’s policy platform for a similar period of time, in this imaginary world.

What’s interesting about this imaginary world is that it is in fact our world. Economists like George Selgin, Larry White, Kevin Dowd (among many others) have done very convincing research about the benefits of free banking. And free banking may one day become a real prospect, perhaps in a new state or a charter city. But free banking has lost the battle for the time being, and abolishing the central bank and government intervention in money is as unlikely as abolishing the welfare state. Now one might say that if free banking is a desirable policy, it is worth continuing to wage the intellectual war for the benefit of future generations, who could benefit from the scholarship. Work done now could end up influencing and improving future monetary policy.

I do not discount the possibility this is true. At the same time, free banking is a meta-policy, not a policy—a way of choosing what monetary regime to enact, rather than a specific monetary regime. After all, it is at least possible that free banks could together target consumer prices, the GDP deflator, the money base, the money supply measured by M2, nominal income/NGDP. And for each of these different measures there are an infinite number of theoretical growth paths, and a large number of realistically plausible growth paths they could aim for. Now, free bankers say that the market will make a good decision, and I can buy that. But let’s say we’re constrained to choose a policy without the aid of the market mechanism: can we say there are better or worse central plans?

The answer is: of course we can! Old-school monetarism, targeting money supply aggregates, was a failure even according to Milton Friedman, whereas CPI targeting, for all its flaws, delivered 66 quarters of unbroken growth and a period so decent they named it the Great Moderation. The interwar gold standard brought us the stagnation of the 1920s (in the UK) and coming off us brought us our relatively pleasant experience of the Great Depression. Literally the order in which countries came off the gold standard is the order they got out of the Great Depression. And even though the classical gold standard worked pretty well, few of its benefits would obtain if we went back. Some central plans (the interwar gold standard, M2 targeting) don’t work, some work a bit (the classical gold standard, CPI) and arguably some work pretty well (NGDP targeting is one in this category, according to Friedman, Hayek and I). If we are stuck with central planning, then why not have a good central plan?

And just because I’m allowing the term “central planning” to describe NGDP targeting, we needn’t describe it as “government intervention in money”. I don’t think they are really the same thing. “Government intervention in money” brings to mind rapid inflation, wild swings in the macroeconomic environment; in short the exact circumstances that NGDP-targeting aims to avoid. Targeting aggregate demand keeps the overall macro environment stable—a truly neutral monetary policy—allowing firms and households to make long-term plans, and preventing recessions like the last one, caused as it almost certainly was by drastic monetary tightening. Indeed, as monetary policy determines the overall path of aggregate demand, we might easily call “sound money” policies aiming for zero inflation or a frozen base as dangerous government meddling—they allow the actually important measures like nominal income to fluctuate drastically.

Consider an analogy: school vouchers. Many libertarians may favour a system where parents can spend as little or as much as they want on schooling (considering distributional concerns separately), rather than having central planners decide on the voucher-set minimum. But we usually see a voucher system as an improvement on the status quo—parents may not be able to fully control how much is spent on their children’s education but at least they can pick their school. Popular and successful schools grow to accommodate demand, while unpopular and unsuccessful schools can be wound down more quickly. Libertarians may see this as a way from the ideal situation, but none would therefore denounce the policy. The analogy isn’t perfect, but I like to see NGDP targeting as similar to school vouchers, versus status quo schooling as the CPI target. Libertarians shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Low rates doesn’t mean low rates

I got called up last Wednesday to ask if anyone at the Adam Smith Institute would go on the Daily Politics to explain why the Bank of England should raise its base rate (not exactly in those words). The producer was familiar with common free market ideas that argue that artificially low interest rates are blowing up a housing bubble which will later burst. I had to try to explain to the producer why I both agree and disagree with these sentiments: low interest rates do underlie economic limbo, but raising the base rate is not a solution and may produce yet lower real interest rates where it matters—throughout the economy.

The problem comes from the dual use, in the popular economic press, and even by top economists, of the term “interest rates” to mean both the stance of monetary policy and the cost of borrowing. This is understandable because during the Great Moderation of 1992-2008 all the world’s most important macroeconomic authorities attempted to control the overall economy through adjusting one or a small number of key interest rates to achieve a consumer price inflation (CPI) target. At the same time, we are familiar with interest rates through our normal life: on loans, mortgages, savings, credit cards and so on. But acting as though the Bank of England directly controls these rates when it adjusts policy seriously obfuscates how the macroeconomy works and contributes to a lot of sloppy thinking.

Whereas the Federal Reserve has always used a form of quantitative easing (QE) to adjust a market interest rate—the Federal Funds Rate—the Bank of England has typically adjusted its base rate, which it calls Bank Rate, instead (updated). Bank Rate is the flat (nominal) interest rate it charges commercial banks for short term funding, and pays on their excess reserves. This sets a lower bound on overnight commercial lending, since it is always an option to lend or borrow money at Bank Rate, and therefore it is included in some market contracts, like tracker variable rate mortgages. The current UK base rate is 0.5%, a nominal number which translates to a negative real rate, but secured loans charge more like 3% in nominal terms, unsecured loans 8%, and credit cards 10%.

So we’ve established that the Bank of England sets a lower bound on interest rates with its Bank Rate. And we’ve also established that Bank Rate affects some other rates directly, principally tracker mortgages. We might also expect it to affect other rates in the economy—for example a cut will “ripple out” through the economy, because all other things being equal, it is now cheaper for banks to borrow from the BoE and they will thus be more willing to do so. Economists call this the liquidity effect. They will thus be more willing to lend cheaply and less willing to borrow from savers. So one effect of lowering the Bank Rate is to directly lower some rates, put a lower lower bound on others, and make others cheaper.

However there is an opposed reaction. Lowering Bank Rate doesn’t just make loans cheaper, but it increases demand. It does so by injecting extra money into the economy (from the extra loans), but more importantly by signalling to markets that it intends demand to grow faster and that it is willing to take measures (such as further lowering Bank Rate or boosting the money supply through a QE programme) to make sure this happens. This is why stock markets react so strongly to a (policy) interest rate cut—all businesses are worth a bit more because they expect higher total revenues over their future.

But if firms expect higher demand in the future they will in turn demand more investment funds to put into projects to service that demand. This means that cutting the BoE’s base rate puts pressure on effective market interest rates in both directions. It is an empirical question which direction the overall effect goes in—but this means that the simple coincidence of low real effective interest rates out in the economy and a low, by historical terms, Bank Rate, shows nothing. It could be that the best way to raise interest rates out there in the economy is to cut the Bank’s base rate, or, since it can’t go much further now, print money to raise inflation (which would ceteris paribus cut the rate in real terms). Look at the graph above for an illustration of how the Fed’s changes in their QE programme (the red line) and their Federal Funds rate (the dark blue line) don’t produce big shifts in (real) market interest rates like corporate bond returns and 30-year mortgages.

So my view on low interest rates is complicated. I think the Bank should get out of the business of setting rates altogether, and vary the size of the monetary base to control nominal income in the economy. But if the Bank is going to use rates as its key policy tool, it shouldn’t raise them when a recovery hasn’t quite taken hold—it’s uncertain whether it’ll raise market interest rates, but it will certainly choke off the demand we need for solid growth.