The continued embarrassment that is European monetary policy … economists?

In the summer 2008, when concerns were growing that a weaker economy was approaching, the ECB raised its rates – a step that had to be reversed pretty quickly as we know. Quite embarrassing.

And what happened this time? Another commodity boom “tricked” the ECB into raising rates at the worst possible time, even though there were no signs of a pass-through of the currently higher headline inflation to core inflation, and thus, to medium term headline inflation. Now, this step will probably be reversed quickly, too. Why? Because even Germany might be heading for a recession.

As Henry Kaspar has pointed out repeatedly on my (other) blog, I shouldn’t criticise the ECB for following its mandate. Even though we all know that the ECB broke its own rules in the past when there was a need to do so, there certainly is some truth to that. (Update: Karl Whelan points out in an email that the mandate of the ECB is “price stability”, so the ECB might actually have more discretion than is commonly assumed). So let me instead address those European economists that keep missing that monetary policy is a huge part of the problem, and potentially a big part of a shorter and longer term fix for the Eurozone.

First of all, what is monetary policy supposed to accomplish? Very broadly speaking: macroeconomic stability. An important aspect is to keep aggregate demand (AD) on a stable and predictable path. The reason is simple: prices and wages don’t adjust quickly enough to accommodate nominal changes that are caused by changes in the demand for the medium of exchange (aka money). So better keep the nominal values on a predictable and stable path, so that there is no need for across-the-board adjustments.

Usually, an inflation-based approach is sufficient, and it has stabilized inflation throughout a large part of the world, which is historically a big achievement. Whether it has contributed to the build-up of the current crisis is still an open question. In times of a severe crisis, however, this approach has clearly proved inadequate, as the focus on inflation has allowed AD to plummet 10% (!) below trend:

Such a drop in AD would be devastating for any economy, not only a currency union. It is time to realize that the policy of the ECB has been extremely tight since 2008, measured by the concept of macroeconomic stability and is therefore an important cause of the current mess.

Second, countries in a currency union experience asynchronous business cycles. This is a problem because monetary policy cannot be tailored to all different cycles. So even though there is some differentiation that the central bank can impose, a large part of the adjustment has to come through changes in prices and wages – a painful process as Germany learned during the first decade of the Euro. And as for anything else that is painful, there is one rule: get it over with quickly.

How can you overcome nominal rigidities quickly? Wages rarely decline nominally (see this Krugman post for some nice graphs), which means there is a(nother) zero lower bound. When some countries need to adjust wages and prices downwards, it is best to be further away from this threshold. The reason is simple: if the best you can do is to keep wages constant, the higher the general price increase, the more the decline in real wages. A higher nominal growth during normal times increases your room for manoeuvre during adjustment periods.

The essence of this: choose a higher inflation, or even better, nominal spending target the more diverse (read: suboptimal) your currency union is. For the Euro area, an inflation target of below 2% is inadequate. This seems so painstakingly obvious, and yet you will have a hard time finding European, let alone German!, economists who share this view – even though the evidence from the Gold standard era supports this argument, too.

Finally, economic historians like Kenneth Rogoff point out that we are currently in a situation of high debt and over-leverage that happens only rarely. When it does, the decline and adjustment usually takes many years – unless the central bank takes decisive action to prevent a severe drop in AD. This may entail temporarily higher inflation, as a period of deleveraging may hurt growth. But it is worth it, as Kenneth writes:

[In 2008] I argued that the only practical way to shorten the coming period of painful deleveraging and slow growth would be a sustained burst of moderate inflation, say, 4-6% for several years. Of course, inflation is an unfair and arbitrary transfer of income from savers to debtors. But, at the end of the day, such a transfer is the most direct approach to faster recovery. Eventually, it will take place one way or another, anyway, as Europe is painfully learning. … Some observers regard any suggestion of even modestly elevated inflation as a form of heresy. But Great Contractions, as opposed to recessions, are very infrequent events, occurring perhaps once every 70 or 80 years. These are times when central banks need to spend some of the credibility that they accumulate in normal times.

Higher nominal spending growth (or inflation) is therefore an important building block to solve the current, short term European crisis – even if you disagree with my argument above that monetary policy since 2008 is one of the major culprits for leading us into this mess. The ECB’s achievement to keep inflation at 2% is a Pyrrhic victory, as Ryan Avent ironically describes:

If the euro zone does fall apart, a fitting epitaph might read, “The ECB feared 3% inflation”.

I sincerely do hope that I read the wrong newspapers and missed all those European economists and commentators screaming all these things (or even better: that I am wrong). But whenever I try to hear something, there is just silence – or Axel Weber lashing out at Olivier Blanchard. Meanwhile, European policy makers and central bankers are wrecking one of the most fascinating projects in human history, the unity and friendship among the countries of Europe. This is beyond depressing. Way beyond.

The Economics of the German VAT Hike

I am very happy to be back here at AFOE, if not only, for a brief one-stop guest post about the economics of the German VAT hike and more specifically how market commentators and analists might just be reading the German economy somewhat falsely at the moment in the sense that they are not taking into account the implications of the sustained and evolving process of ageing in the German society. Indeed as Edward noted just a few days ago here at AFOE we might actually be talking about a clash of paradigms or at least a clash between two ways of looking at and interpreting the economic data coming out of Germany and indeed of the entire Eurozone. There are consequently many venues on which this diagreement is fielded and an important one of these is the German economy and more specifically the significance of the VAT hike and below the fold I will give my view on this topic.
Continue reading

Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
Continue reading

Visit Hungary Now!

Because they devalued the forint this summer, so everything is now about 7% cheaper.

Well, they didn’t actually devalue it. No. I mean, that would imply there had been a… devaluation. Ha ha, how silly. No, what happened was that the Bank of Hungary moved the band in which the forint was allowed to float freely. Whereupon the forint freely floated down from around 250/euro to more like 275/euro. So, it was a sudden fast downward change in the value of the currency caused by central bank action. Which is not a “devaluation” at all.

(The forint lost about 10% of its value in a month; you can see the graphic here. It has since clawed back about a third of that loss. Still, a Euro will go about 7% further than it would in May, and about 10% further than in March.)

Nobody seems to have paid much attention, but I think there are some points of interest here.
Continue reading

Is Trichet’s Optimism Justified?

Our next anniversary guest post is from the estimable Mark Thoma.

The Fed and the ECB have different economic outlooks for the U.S. and European economies. For instance, the Financial Times reports:

Fed and ECB diverge on economic outlook, by Chris Giles and Ralph Atkins, Financial Times: The Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank painted contrasting pictures of the US and European economies… Together, the statement by Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, and the speech by Mr Bernanke indicated that European interest rates were likely to rise while there was no urgency for further US rate rises.
Mr Bernanke gave an optimistic assessment of the US economy’s ability to continue rapid economic growth without triggering further inflationary pressures. … Across the Atlantic, Mr Trichet announced big upward revisions to the ECB’s inflation forecasts … and called for “strong vigilance” to defend price stability – code words used to signal an interest rate increase in early October. … Mr Trichet’s comments followed the unexpected strength of the eurozone recovery in the second quarter, and ECB fears about the impact on inflation
in 2007… Eurozone consumers’ fears about inflation increased in August to the highest level since the introduction of euro notes and coins in 2002…

Continue reading

Will They, Won’t They?

While Latvia is still arguing with the EU Commission over the spelling of eiro (or is it euro), the FT today asks the much more pertinent question: will the other baltic states even be able to join? On the backs of the energy hike Estonia and Lithuania are struggling to comply with the entry conditions, especially those on inflation. Slovenia is, however, expected to join on target on 1 January 2007.

Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia set themselves the target of being in the first wave of new euro members next January and of complying with most of the rules, including public debt levels, interest rates and budget deficits.

Estonia, however, is struggling to meet the inflation criterion, which is likely to be set at about 3 per cent this year, 1.5 per cent above the average inflation rates of the three countries with the lowest inflation….. Like in other former Soviet-bloc countries, energy has a bigger weighting in Estonia’s consumer price index because the country uses power less efficiently than the EU’s older members.

“We feel that it’s a shame that just when we need to qualify for euro entry, the world oil prices go up,” said Kylike Sillaste, adviser to the prime minister….

Joaquin Almunia, the EU’s monetary affairs commissioner, has said he will apply strictly the entry standards for the candidate countries, although the ultimate decision on enlarging the eurozone lies with member states.

German Inflation On the Way Down

The latest inflation eport from the Federal Statistical Office in Germany says this:

The harmonised consumer price index for Germany, which is calculated for European purposes, rose by 2.3% in November 2005 compared with November 2004. Compared with the previous month, the index was down 0.5%. The estimate of 25 November 2005 was thus slightly corrected downwards.

Inflation threat, what inflation threat?

More A Whimper Than A Cry

Well the G7 meeting has come and gone, but I’m not sure how much the world is going to notice the fact. If I had been a fly, perhaps I would now be glad I hadn’t wasted my efforts. Basically there is a ‘shift’ from focusing on the oil issue to the inflation one, but given that in the two countries which are now driving global growth – the US and China – inflation is coming slowly but surely under control, I would have thought that this was to start to fall behind the curve instead of getting out in front of it. Put another way, since I am sure the Fed will push on through with the measured pace till the last drop of inflation oil is squeezed out of the US economy, I sure as hell don’t imagine that inflation is going to be tomorrow’s issue, and I guess this is the bit that the markets are really interested in.

Finance ministers and central bank governors from the world’s leading economies have warned of increasing inflationary pressures, adding to concerns over rising protectionist sentiment and global trade imbalances….The warning on inflation came as the US Federal Reserve continues to tighten monetary policy and follows the European Central Bank’s quarter point rate increase last week – the first in five years. The Bank of Japan has also started to prepare the ground for an eventual curtailing of its exceptionally loose monetary policy.

I think, btw, that the G7 are right to stress the importance of higher oil prices in the longer term as a constraint on the consumer, but this is ultimately a terms of trade effect – final consumption in the OECD world is squeezed as petro dollars mount up elsewhere – rather than an inflationary one as long as the monetary authorities keep the lid on ‘second round effects’. If you wanted to be really cynical you could say that the US government deficit was working as a giant paddle to keep the flow of funds moving, converting all those accumulated petro dollars into final consumption, but somehow I doubt Brad Setser would want to see things like this.

The Most Bizarre Monetary Policy DecisionOf Recent Times?

This was Wolfgang Munchau writing in the Financial Times a week ago:

The pre-announced interest rate rise that the European Central Bank is due to agree this Thursday must rank as one of the most bizarre monetary policy decisions of recent times. The economic recovery in the eurozone remains fragile, as last week’s German confidence indicators have shown. Even the ECB’s own forecast for headline inflation is relatively optimistic, while core inflation remained unchanged at 1.5 per cent in October.”

and he issued a warning:

“It is still not too late to propose ECB reform as part of the next treaty revision. For as long as EU leaders maintain the status quo, they have the central bank they deserve.

Central bank independence seems to be once more ‘a l’ordre du jour’, and the ECB may well live to find to its cost that there is one thing worse than actually playing the game, it’s playing the game and losing. Now why?
Continue reading

Crying Wolf At The ECB?

The always interesting Paul de Grauwe has a piece in the FT today (subscription only unfortunately, but he does collect all his FT pieces on his website here, so it will doubtless appear eventually). Basically he is arguing a view which I agree with: in its enthusiasm for raising interest rates the ECB is overdoing the inflation problem, and not by a little:

Strange things are happening in Frankfurt these days. Barely two weeks ago the European Central Bank issued its monthly bulletin containing an analysis of the perspectives for inflation in the euro area. In a nutshell the story was the following.

Yes, yearly inflation has increased to 2.5 per cent (October 2005) and this is a source of concern for a central bank that has promised to keep inflation below 2 per cent. But, as we all know, a central bank that targets the rate of inflation should be forward-looking and base its interest rate decisions on the expected future rate of inflation. The remarkable thing about the analysis is that, after voicing its concern about current inflation exceeding 2 per cent, it came to the conclusion that the perspectives for future inflation were favourable.

Paul de Grauwe’s work is generally highly commendable, and this presentation of his on the pluses and minuses of the euro is a really good background primer.