Zachary David is wrong about futures targeting

Last week Zachary David wrote a critique of nominal GDP futures targeting that was favourably shared by a few people I respect, but whose arguments I don't find persuasive. In it, he argues that though targeting NGDP is a fairly persuasive argument in general, specifically Scott Sumner's idea of targeting the price of contracts on an NGDP futures market would not work firstly because of revisions, and secondly because unlimited liquidity at a fixed price breaks market.

I think both objections are wrong, and indeed are wrong in a way that actually illustrates very nicely why targeting expected NGDP growth through futures markets is an attractive monetary policy regime. (Incidentally, I forgot to post this when I wrote it, last week, and in the meantime Scott has written a reply himself.)

Prof. Sumner says the government should, as well as issuing inflation-linked bonds, issue NGDP-linked bonds. Just as a regular bond might pay at a specific interest rate and return a particular principal on maturity, and an inflation-linked bond does the same but with extra to neutralise the effects of inflation, an NGDP-linked bond would add money onto the final principal to reflect changes in NGDP. So if a regular £100 bond pays back £105 on maturity, and inflation was 2% over the period, an inflation-linked bond would pay back £107; if NGDP growth was 5%, an NGDP-linked bond would pay £110.

This means that the current spread in price between a regular and inflation-linked bond reflects market expectations of inflation. If you expect 2% inflation, you're willing to pay exactly 2% more for an inflation-linked bond—no more or no less. So one way to target 5% growth in NGDP would be for the central bank to buy and sell the NGDP-linked bonds until the difference is 5%. When investors stop buying or selling from the bank then they must expect NGDP to grow 5%.

But David says this market is weird: "in general, a well-functioning market shouldn't have an infinitely liquid counter-party triggering automatic causal effects against every position." He also says it "defeats the purpose of price discovery". But there are a plethora of similar examples where this sort of behaviour isn't weird at all.

Currently, central banks consider and cite market forecasts of inflation when they decide whether to increase or reduce the monetary base—exactly the same calculation as in Sumner's scenario, except more slowly and lumpily. Markets only fail to expect the inflation target to come up when they think the Bank isn't credible or is deliberately going to miss it (because, for example, there is a big supply shock, something that is not a problem for NGDP targeting).

In this real live market "expressing your view immediately causes your view to be less right". Indeed, in this futures market, a perfectly credible bank would not need to buy and sell much on this market at all, since investors would always expect it to. This is exactly the same as in regular inflation targeting: demand shocks to countries with credible central banks do not usually change inflation forecasts—people know they will balance the shock out.

Consider also Switzerland's currency peg, or the UK's entry into the ERM. The bets market actors made were not reacting to external shocks, they were questioning the willingness of the UK authorities to do what was necessary to maintain the peg—they were testing credibility. In Sumner's world, bets on the NGDP futures market are bets about credibility. The central bank is not shouting like Canute at the price to make it go where they want, they're changing the real world so it's the right price.*

David's other objection also seems quite clearly falsified by mundane features of normal markets. He says that revisions to data mean that while firms are betting based on the true value of NGDP at a given point, they are rewarded based on what the statistical authorities report, which involves ~1% of error. He notes Sumner's point that if these aren't systematically too high or too low, no one would be expected to lose out over time by betting consistently on the true value, but he still objects.

But just consider regular markets. Every single market involves trading on data that includes error. Inflation-linked bonds involve the error in the retail prices index—not to mention the subjective decisions about quality and basket inclusion the stats office must make. And other markets invest based on considerably worse data like Chinese household income or GDP or industrial production statistics. These are simply not big problems with markets; markets are made to aggregate the info that we have, generating the best possible "answer" from that. If you disagree, you can make money saying so.

Finally David says people will not trade on the market if it exists. It's not clear that that's a bad thing. The reason they won't trade—if they don't—is that there is no doubt what's going to happen: they trust the central bank to deliver 5% NGDP growth. There is no risk, in this world, that it will fail and that they should hedge against this risk, since their customers buy their products with nominal dollars. Bear in mind that if people overall really did think NGDP would overshoot they could buy infinite bonds off the bank and make incredible sums if they were right. The reason David expects little trading is that he thinks the Bank will be credible.

So David is wrong. His examples are falsified by existing markets: if his claims were true, then it would have been impossible or crazy for the Swiss National Bank to peg the Franc, and it would have made no sense for George Soros to short the pound in 1992. If he was right about revisions then practically no markets would work, since practically all data is revised or measured with substantial error, and yet markets based on that data function well. NGDP futures targeting is a policy that could work—or if not, then for reasons not highlighted by David.

*David's sketched out scenario seems to me a partial model of the type which illustrates why formal modelling can be useful. If someone "just sells" NGDP contracts then it's true that the central bank will buy them at the price peg. But the key thing that extra money base would be expected to change the price of is NGDP contracts themselves. So any increase in the money base would be expected to trigger people into buying NGDP contracts. The individual move would sow the seeds of its own erasure and would have no net effect, even in terms of a yo-yo: markets would know in advance. It is not a reductio ad absurdum of the system at all.

There's a very simple reason for this, Oxfam

Oxfam tells us that it's simply shameful that the rich countries are not taking more of the current refugee flow. The difficulty with this claim is that the current numbers are the result of the way that international law works. This is, today's situation, exactly how the United Nations has agreed, and the member states have agreed, that refugees should be handled.

We thus have Oxfam opening something of a Pandora's Box. If those glorious institutions are wrong on this issue, well, what else are they wrong upon

The six wealthiest countries in the world, which between them account for almost 60% of the global economy, host less than 9% of the world’s refugees, while poorer countries shoulder most of the burden, Oxfam has said.

According to a report released by the charity on Monday, the US, China, Japan,Germany, France and the UK, which together make up 56.6% of global GDP, between them host just 2.1 million refugees: 8.9% of the world’s total.

Of these 2.1 million people, roughly a third are hosted by Germany (736,740), while the remaining 1.4 million are split between the other five countries. The UK hosts 168,937 refugees, a figure Oxfam GB chief executive, Mark Goldring, has called shameful.

In contrast, more than half of the world’s refugees – almost 12 million people – live in Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Pakistan, Lebanon and South Africa, despite the fact these places make up less than 2% of the world’s economy.

Everyone has a right to claim asylum (that is, to be both a refugee and to be welcomed and cared for) as a result either of persecution or more generally from war and such. This is an absolute right, it cannot in law be denied.

However, a refugee must claim asylum in the first safe country that is reached. Thus Syrians who have (entirely rightly and correctly in law) fled the war in Syria and reached Lebanon or Turkey not only can claim asylum there they must.

Someone who gets off a plane from Syria to Heathrow can claim, and should be granted, asylum in the UK. That's what the system is. The reason it is this way is that asylum, that duty to those at risk, is not the same as open borders nor the ability to go jurisdiction shopping as a route of immigration.

Thus asylum duties are going to fall heavily on those countries which are geographically connected to those places going through the horrors which generate the right to asylum. This is not a defect of the current policy it is the point and purpose of it. For the assumption is that once the war or the persecution has finished then people will go home.

That Japan or the UK, island nations some 10 or 20 safe national jurisdictions away from the troubles, do not have that many refugees is not some awful problem it's just something baked into the international law on this subject.

Perhaps it shouldn't be this way, perhaps international law is pants. But that does rather open that Pandora's Box, doesn't it - what else does international law get completely wrong?

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

On this day in 1790 died the great Scottish economist Adam Smith. To us he is best known for his pioneering 1776 book An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations – which he called simply his Inquiry, but which today is known as The Wealth of Nations. It was arguably the first systematic presentation of modern economics: on the very first page, it introduces the notions of Gross National Product (GNP), GNP per capita, and productivity – all of which are essential tools for economists today. But it was more than a mere textbook. It was a polemic against government controls over economic life: of trade barriers and protectionism (designed to favour domestic industries and keep out other countries’ imports, but which merely impoverished both sides); and of government regulatory power that could be used cynically by businesses keep out their competitors.

But it was his earlier 1759 book on moral philosophy, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, that propelled him to fame. Philosophers at the time struggled to work out how we could know what was moral and what was not. Many appealed to religion as the answer. Others thought that we might have a sixth sense, a ‘moral sense’ that could detect good and evil. Smith explained it in terms of our natural feeling for the welfare of others and the praise or blame that others heap on us for our good and bad actions. This, by some sort of providence, prompted us to act morally and curb our selfishness, thereby promoting the general good of society and survival of humanity. Smith tried, but could not explain this happy providence by which positive moral sentiments are visited on one generation after another. It would be exactly a century later before Charles Darwin’s 1859 The Origin Of Species identified the mechanism.

The Theory Of Moral Sentiments so impressed the prominent statesman Charles Townsend, who was stepfather to the 12-year-old Duke of Buccleuch, that he promptly hired Smith, on a lifetime salary of £300 a year, to tutor the young nobleman. On their travels in Europe, Smith met many of the leading Continental thinkers and was exposed to the very different economies of Europe. He began to write notes for a book – the book that would become The Wealth Of Nations.

It took him a decade and a half. But Smith’s second book proved even more sensational than the first. It quickly went through several editions and translations. It changed the direction of public policy on trade, regulation and tax. The nation gave him a sinecure – Commissioner of Customs – on an even grander salary of £600 a year. Smith being Smith, he did not treat the post as a sinecure but was meticulous at actually doing the job. And he offered to give up his £300 a year from the Duke of Buccleuch, though the Duke would hear none of it: with Smith as his teenage tutor and adult friend, he thought it amazing value.

In 1774 Smith bought an elegant town house off the Canongate, in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Here he would entertain leading thinkers from Edinburgh and visitors from further afield. The story – almost true – is that, at one such meeting, he felt unwell and rose, saying: “Gentlemen, I fear we must continue this conversation in another place.” He died shortly after.

In reality, Smith died, aged 67, in the north wing of Panmure House, after a painful illness. He left instructions that his unpublished papers should be burnt, apart from his Essays On Philosophical Subjects and a breathtakingly original work on the philosophy of science, called History Of Astronomy. He was buried just a few yards from his home, in an elegant neoclassical tomb in the Canongate Kirkyard. 

On his deathbed, he regretted that he had not done more. He had planned a work on politics, and perhaps another on justice. But with The Wealth Of Nations, he achieved an impact on our lives that lasts even today.

We'd like to announce, once again, that we told you so

What we've said over these years is that some damn fool is going to insist upon doing something damn foolish about this climate change thing. the political and social head of steam is such that this just is going to happen. Thus we should all be insisting that what is done is the only sensible response to the problem if it exists, a carbon tax. As the Stern Review and every other economist studying the problem insist. For if we don't so insist then damn fool things like this will happen.

True, this is from the colonial cousins where things are always more extreme but still:

Following the prolonged cold snap, PJM, the entity that oversees utilities in the Mid-Atlantic and parts of Appalachia and the Midwest, put a plan into action: It would help the local utilities ensure that power was more reliable. To do this, PJM fast-tracked new rules for capacity resources — an industry phrase for guaranteed electricity supply. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the new rules last May.

Renewables tend not to supply on demand. Thus a renewables based system needs to make sure that there is sufficient power available on demand and may well have to make payments just to make sure that such capacity is built and is ready to roll. Then the twist:

Under the new rules, renewable energy providers, such as solar and wind companies, will have a hard time participating in PJM’s capacity market, where utilities pay to make sure that they have a certain amount of electricity guaranteed in future years. The new rules require the providers in the market to be able to provide consistent production year-round, whereas wind and solar perform better during different parts of the year.

“The new rules will funnel billions of dollars from electricity consumers to fossil and nuclear power plants while severely limiting clean energy participation in PJM’s capacity market,” writes Jennifer Chen, an attorney with NRDC’s Sustainable FERC project.

The capacity market exists because renewables cannot be relied upon over time. But to not allow renewables to compete for the capacity payments is discrimination against renewables and thus something that must be fought in court.

We admit that we wouldn't have and didn't predict this particular damn foolishness. But we would and did something like it. Any system of ever more bureaucratic control is going to be subject to interventions like this.

Thus, assume that we really do have a problem here, or any other problem of a similar nature. We need to put a crowbar into market forces to account for an externality for example. Fine, but we should also make just the one intervention, insert just the one crowbar, and then allow market forces to work out the details. In this case, the Pigou Tax of a carbon charge is far better than endless wrangling in the courts over whether windmills should get capacity payments. The entire capacity payment system dependent upon the fact that we cannot rely upon windmills when the wind doesn't blow.

We really did tell you so. If we're going to do something then let's do the carbon tax.


We don't think we would blame Boris for the creation of the Euromyth

Something of a stretch here, a claim that Boris Johnson invented the very genre of Euromyth and the enthusiastic pursuit of that by others is what has led to Brexit:

Even worse, Johnson created a school of EU reporting: the entire British press, to varying degrees, began peddling Euromyths, fuelling the kind of Europhobia that no UK politician dared to stand up to, and which ultimately has now led to Brexit.

No, we don't think that can be allowed to stand really. For two reasons, the first being that it wasn't those making the anti-EU stories such fun which started the game. Rather, it was the absurd claims of the federasts which set things off. 

The European Union has created peace in Europe? a regular claim, as we know, that an organisation which came into being in 1992 created peace since 1945... and rather missing the influence of NATO there. The euro would produce a burst of economic growth? Err, yes, let's brush that one under the carpet shall we? The more current insistence upon an FTT to raise revenue when the Commission's own report into it insists that tax revenue will fall as a result of the FTT causing a smaller economy? 

The second reason would be that the Euromyths all too often turn out not to have just a grain of truth to them but are actually the truth. It really is illegal, a criminal offence punishable by 6 months inside and or a £5,000 fine, to sell bananas of excessive curvature for direct human consumption. Or to market apricot marmalade. These are not myths they are truths. And there really is a law, the jams, jellies, extra jellies and marmalades regulations which insist that it is legal to make jam (or extra jam) from tomatoes or carrots but not from  marrows or turnips. At the pain of that 6 months and or five large again.

Who needs myths when you've bureaucrats trying to rule 500 million people in that manner?

No, Johnson did not invent the Euromyth nor did myths of any kind lead to Brexit. The system itself created the stories and the system itself led to our leaving. it, to borrow a phrase, tumbled from its own internal contradictions. 

What joy, we're to have an industrial strategy again are we?

Much singing and dancing in the streets no doubt:

Business leaders welcomed the creation of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, expressing hope that the Whitehall department will formulate an industrial policy.

Some things in such a strategy are welcome of course. Low taxes, the rule of law, a reasonable regulatory environment, these are vital parts of any strategy for the economy, industrial or not.

Then there's the things which are not reasonable:

 Gareth Stace, director of UK Steel, who has spent the past year jousting with Mr Javid over his handling of the steel crisis, said that the department must help industry to “invest, thrive and play a significant part in building a stronger UK economy”. He called for ministers “to remove unilateral costs, including energy, business rates and increasing the proportion of British steel used in British construction projects”.

"Buy more of what my people make" is not a welcome addition to an industrial strategy Gareth.

Angus Brendan MacNeil, who could find himself out of a job as chairman of the Commons energy and climate change select committee, said: “DECC’s disappearance raises urgent questions: which department will take responsibility for the energy and climate aspects of negotiations to leave the EU? Who will champion decarbonisation in Cabinet? Who will drive innovation in the energy sector?”

Innovation is driven by people innovating, not government telling them to innovate. Thus the answer to innovation in energy is to get the prices right (yes, we've an externality here that needs to be priced in) and once we've done that let the markets rip. We've even got a whole great big report, the Stern Review, which says exactly that.

That is, the correct industrial strategy is for government to set the basic ground rules, make sure of the existence of the necessary institutions, then get out of the way.

We are aware though of one more possible use of an industrial strategy: 

David Palmer-Jones, chief executive of the UK division of Suez, the French energy and waste recycling group, said: “Any rationalisation of government departments to ensure the creation of more joined-up, long-term strategic policy planning at a national level to help us to build the power stations, produce the resources and create opportunities for a skilled labour force [is welcome]. Businesses like ours need clear long-term policy guidance from Whitehall.” 


If we can get all of the people who think and speak like that off discussing industrial strategy somewhere then the rest of us will be safe from anything the might do in the real economy. To the great benefit of is all. That is, the benefit of discussing industrial strategy is that we don't have one and all who would are still discussing it.

The wrong type of subsidy

We've pointed out a number of times here that the basic policy about climate change is simply wrong. Given that everyone has got so excited about the subject that something is going to be done we have been pointing out that what should be done is the least damaging and most effective thing. A simple carbon tax, revenue neutral by preference. Instead, as a result of Ed Miliband's misunderstandings of how the universe works, we've ended up with a ludicrous subsidy system. Which continues to get worse:

In October 2013 the Government agreed a deal with the French state-owned energy giant to guarantee it a price of £92.50, index-linked to inflation, for every megawatt-hour of electricity the £18bn nuclear plant would produce over a 35 year period.

The difference between the wholesale price of power and the guaranteed price would be "topped up" through subsidies, paid for through a levy on UK energy bills. 

At the time the deal was signed, power price projections had implied a lifetime cost to consumers of £6.1bn for the subsidies, the NAO said.

As of March this year, that had more than quadrupled to £29.7bn due to significant cuts to official power price forecasts.

We should tax the bad thing, not subsidise a possibly good thing. But if we are to have subsidies then it should be just the one subsidy rate.

Instead of different subsidy rates for nuclear, solar, tidal, offshore and onshore wind and so on and on we want to have just the one single rate. Any and every technology which meets that rate without emissions gets it, any that doesn't thus doesn't get built. It's only in that manner that we end up getting the most efficient method of dealing with the problem built.

Instead Ministers have, over the years, fallen prey to the idea that they can plan this instead of admitting that the actual solution is to harness market forces and technological advance to deal with it.

Become an ASI gap-year student this year (and get paid!)

Backpacking around South-East Asia is great, but do you know what's more fun? 

That's right, spending 4 - 9 months in the ASI office with all of your favourite libertarians!

It's that time of year again: the ASI is looking for two new employees, to start in September 2016.

As last year, the crucial requirements are that you:

  • Are on a gap year; you must be 18-20
  • Are open-minded, inquisitive, friendly, intellectually curious, eager to learn and interested in policy
  • Know and have an opinion on the ASI's perspective and what it does
  • Have a broadly liberal perspective on the world

Does that sound like you? If it does, you've passed the first hurdle. Congratulations! You're one step closer to potentially becoming the latest ASI intern. 

Your duties will include:

  • Organising lunches and dinners
  • Keeping the database up-to-date
  • Managing the blog
  • Reviewing and editing ASI publications
  • Selling ASI merchandise
  • Doing secretarial work for the directors
  • Logging RSVPs for events
  • Meeting a wide range of interesting & important people
  • Learning about social & political science
  • Socialising with the staff
  • Carrying out self-directed research
  • Writing blog posts
  • Setting up and cleaning up after events
  • Mailing out publications to subscribers

And, of course, having fun! 

Previous interns have gone on to work with the Adam Smith Institute, including the ASI’s current Deputy Director, Sam Bowman, and Head of Digital Policy, Charlotte Bowyer, who was a Gap Year intern in 2009-10.

The role pays the National Minimum Wage. All applicants will interview with President Madsen Pirie and Deputy Director Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith Institute offices in Westminster during the summer.

Please send a CV and cover letter of around 500 words to by Wednesday 20th July 2016. 

Is there some method by which this could have been predicted?

We don'rt think that this was a desired outcome:

Elderly people are quietly being denied support by councils struggling to cope with funding cuts and rising carer bills fuelled by the National Living Wage, new analysis shows.

The flagship Government policy, which came into effect in April and guarantees £7.20 an hour for those aged 25 and over, has left English councils searching for an extra £600 million, according to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS).

Overall, local authorities need an extra £1.1bn just to maintain the level of care they provided last year, the ADASS report reveals.

Actually, we think there is a method that could have been used to predict this. That basic part of economics on the introductory page of every book everywhere - supply and demand.

Except in the very strange circumstances that something is a Giffen Good, and labour is not one, when the price of something rises people will attempt to economise on their purchases of that thing.

Raise the wages being paid to carers and the people who are paying for carers will hire fewer of them.

Yes, yes, we know that George Osborne said this wouldn't happen and we all know that we can trust George. Except reality has different ideas it seems. 

We're all fatty lardbuckets because we're eating less

That the population is generally getting fatter is true. That we might be facing an obesity epidemic is at least possible. But what we'd like to know is why is this happening? And the answer is that we're all becoming fatty lardbuckets because we are eating less. Unfortunately, we're not eating less than our decline in calories expended would suggest

Surprisingly, we find that total calories purchased have declined substantially over the last three decades. We distinguish two periods: 1980-2007, when food prices were falling; and after the Great Recession (2008-2013), when food prices increased worldwide and real incomes fell for many people. Table 1 shows the continuous decline in mean calorie levels regardless of food price changes. In the paper we show that this decline is not just occurring at the mean, but also across the distribution.

As Chris Snowdon over at the IEA has been manfully pointing out for a couple of years now it just isn't true that we are all eating more. We're simply not. As Snowdon has also pointed out the average UK diet now contains fewer calories than the WWII rationing one considered sparse leading to dangerous weight loss.

Thus public policy about why obesity is rising is simply based upon the wrong premise. It's not Big Sugar, nor Big Food, nor fats nor whatevers. Quite simply we expend fewer calories than our forefathers did and yet our calorie consumption has not fallen to meet that. Thus we are getting fatter.

And it is a simple truth about this world that if you want to try and solve some problem then you do have to analyse correctly why there is a problem in the first place. Which just ain't being done at present. Thus all the proposed solutions are wrong.