Nominal GDP targeting for dummies


Nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) targeting is a type of monetary policy that people like me think would give us a more stable economy than we currently have. It would replace the Bank of England’s current monetary policy, inflation targeting. Nominal GDP can be understood as sum of all spending in the economy. Total spending can increase either because of price rises (inflation) or because there’s more stuff to go around (economic growth). If this year inflation is 2% and we have 2% economic growth, nominal spending (nominal GDP) will have risen by 4%.

The current policy of inflation targeting means that the Bank of England tries to control the money supply so that prices rise, on average, by 2% every year. If prices rise by more or less than this, the Bank is judged to have failed in its job.

Nominal GDP targeting would mean that the Bank of England would stop trying to target price rises, and instead try to target the total amount of nominal spending that takes place in the economy. That means that if economic growth was lower than usual, the Bank would have to try to make inflation higher than usual. If economic growth was higher than usual, inflation would be lower than usual.

This system is appealing because it is often the total amount of spending in the economy that matters, rather than inflation per se. Wages are usually set in nominal terms, which means that they do not automatically adjust upwards and downwards according to inflation.

Because of this, a drop in the amount of spending going on can lead to a mismatch between all the wage demands in the economy and the amount of money available to pay them. In other words, there is not enough money in the economy to pay everyone. This has two possible outcomes: either wages can be cut to meet the new level of spending, or people will have to be fired.

Empirically, it seems as if firms prefer to fire some workers than to cut wages across the board. In fact, firms really hate cutting wages, for some reason, and unemployed people are often reluctant to take the same job that they once had for a lower wage. Economists refer to this phenomenon as “sticky wages”.

So the outcome of a fall in total spending is usually unemployment. This is an example of a nominal change having a real effect, and destroys wealth that need not be destroyed, because the previously-profitable relationship between the worker and the firm has now been undone.

When this happens across the economy it can affect economic growth. In fact, this seems to be a very important factor in recessions – when there is a steady level spending taking place, the market is pretty good at finding new ways of using unemployed workers fairly quickly. When there just isn’t enough spending going on, we have to wait for workers and firms to cut wages enough to hire them again, which can take a long time.

Under nominal GDP targeting, the Bank of England would commit to keep the spending level growing even if economic growth dipped. As I've said, that would mean more inflation in times of slow growth and less inflation in times of quick growth.

Because inflation is being used to offset the changes in economic growth, negative economic ‘shocks’ like oil crises will translate into higher prices, prompting the market to adjust to take account of new realities, but never creating the domino effect of mass unemployment that we sometimes currently experience. The real economy would still adjust to real shifts in supply and demand, but we’d avoid the chaos that unstable monetary environments can create.

The key is that almost all contracts in the modern economy are set in nominal terms. That means that money that is managed in the wrong way can create a lot of unnecessary destruction of wealth. Nominal GDP targeting would probably give us the most neutral monetary system possible with the government, with the monetary environment kept stable so the real economy can do its work in allocating resources.

Money matters. The 2008 crisis happened because expectations of inflation, and hence nominal spending levels, dropped sharply, causing the ‘musical chairs’ problem of too little money to fulfil all the existing contracts and wage demands, which led to widespread bankruptcies and job losses. Today, the UK and the US have begun to get their spending levels growing at a healthy rate again, and their real economies have begun to grow healthily again too.

The Eurozone is the saddest story. The European Central Bank has been obsessed with fighting inflation (possibly because Germany has not suffered much, and Germans have bad memories of hyperinflation during the 1920s), and as a result nominal spending has grown very slowly indeed. The consequences are easy to see: in the weaker European economies, like Greece, Spain and Italy, unemployment is at historically high levels. It seems likely to stay there for many years.

Many people, myself included, believe that a system where private banks could issue their own notes without a central bank at all would be the best system. This is known as ‘free banking’. One of the best arguments for free banking is that it would keep nominal spending levels steady, because banks would issue more notes during periods of slow growth and fewer notes during periods of high growth. This should sound familiar – nominal GDP targeting is probably the closest we can get to ‘stateless’ money while having a central bank.

Nominal GDP targeting would not prevent all recessions or guarantee growth. The real economy is what determines things like that. But badly-managed money can destroy growth, create recessions by itself, and turn small ‘real’ recessions into extremely bad depressions, as happened in the 1930s and 2000s. Nominal GDP targeting would give us stable, neutral money that avoids these things. We would have been better off with it in 2008, and we would be better off with it today.