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.

UK Jobless Upward Trend Continues

U.K. jobless claims rose for an eighth consecutive month in September, extending the longest period of increases in almost 13 years, “as growth in Europe’s second- biggest economy slows”. This adds just a little more evidence to the fact that all is not necessarily currently all for the best in the land of John Stuart Mill. However as NTC research point out, not all is totally bad either:

Meanwhile, annual average earnings growth held steady at 4.2 percent in the three months to August, signalling that higher inflation is still not feeding through to wages.

So earnings continue upwards at a healthy clip, but not above trend. No evidence of ‘secondary effects’ here then. Which makes you wonder why the normally reasonable Mervyn King is currently being so evidently unreasonable. You can find my explanation for this here (and in the comments).

Mervyn King on Tuesday night signalled he was not convinced of the case for lower interest rates and could see many reasons why the rise in oil prices might increase inflationary pressure.
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Oooops It Isn’t Baaack….

Morgan Stanley team members Steven Jen and Eric Chaney (joined by Takehiro Sato and David Miles) debate today the interesting question of whether the eurozone economies have entered a liquidity trap (LT). Those who have no idea what one of these would look like could do worse than read Paul Krugman’s classic article on the topic: It’s baaack! Japan’s Slump and the Return of the Liquidity Trap (pdf).

So what is all the fuss about?
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He Would Say That Wouldn’t he

For those who are not old enough to remember, these are the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies.
Now throwing a link quickly back across the Atlantic, Dave Altig at Macro blog picked up my ECB post and added a response from Hans Eichel.

But, the plot does thicken a bit.
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Scary Stuff

In a post which appeared earlier this week Tobias asks us whether, given some of the possible consequences of a French “non”, it might not be reasonable to ‘scare’ voters a little by spelling out some of the potential fallout which might follow a French rejection of the Constitution Treaty.

Perhaps the phrasing is unfortunate, but undoubtedly voters in Eurozone countries need to think long and hard about one especially sensitive area of impact: the future of the euro itself.
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Housing Review

My out-of-consensus speculation that the Bank of England’s round of interest rate rises may be pretty much done looks sounder by the day. There may be one more rate increase, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were pretty much over with it, and even if the next move (the end of this year?) wasn’t downwards. The reason? Growing evidence that the UK housing boom is bottoming out, and with this, UK consumption starting to take a hit.

U.K. mortgage lending growth probably slowed in August and consumer confidence may have weakened in September, suggesting economic growth peaked in the second quarter amid rising interest rates, surveys of economists showed……

House prices fell 0.6 percent in August from July, the first drop since August 2002, according to Edinburgh-based HBOS Plc, the U.K.’s largest mortgage lender. It was the biggest decline since December 2000.

Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and his rate-setting committee said they may have underestimated the effect of any decline in home values on consumer spending, according to minutes of the Bank of England’s Sept. 8-9 meeting.

“We’ve just come through a very slow holiday period and there is a general agreement that September is no improvement,” said Richard Hair, president of the National Association of Estate Agents. “We’re getting geared up for what may be a difficult market in the autumn.”
Source: Bloomberg

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What’s It All About Alfie?

Well I suppose it’s better to end the week on a bang rather than a whimper, so here I go with another of those posts. What really ended the week on a high note (or should I say a low one) was the US labour market. And since I am arguing that the euro-dollar parity is being driven at the moment by US labour market data, this news can only mean one thing: more upward pressure on the euro. Which makes me only want to re-iterate, and even more strongly, that an important opportunity was wasted yesterday to take some remedial action by lowering the interest rate. Remedial action which would also have supplied a much needed lifeline to Germany’s beleagured economy. But this, like so many things, was not to be.
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