Don’t Trust the CPI – Inflation is Hidden Somewhere Else!

by Gunther Schnabl

Both in Europe and in the US, interest rates have fallen to still very low levels and central banks have used unconventional measures to stimulate the economy. Nevertheless, officially measured inflation rates have remained low. While central bankers are proud of the high degree of price stability, many citizens feel their purchasing power diminishing. How does this fit together?

Continue reading

Fed Policy

by Jerry O’Driscoll

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell testified to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. It was the semi-annual testimony mandated by the Humphrey–Hawkins Act.  Powell’s testimony was anodyne. He repeated and reiterated the Fed’s planned policy moves with respect to interest rates, and added suitable caveats on economic growth, inflation, and tariffs. Trade policy is a new factor for Fed policymakers. Continue reading

China’s Great Wall of Debt, Dinny McMahon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp.

by Edward Chancellor*

China’s economy has long defied the doom-mongers. In place of their ominous critique, a more constructive view of economic management in the People’s Republic has surfaced. Beijing, we are told, has found the right balance between state and market forces, and is best positioned to exploit exciting new technologies, such as big data and artificial intelligence. Politically fractured and economically sclerotic Western nations can only look on in envy.

Dinny McMahon, a former financial journalist and mandarin speaker who spent many years reporting on the Middle Kingdom, doesn’t buy this line. In his view, China’s economy has spent years locked in continuous stimulus mode, accumulating bad debts and generating great economic imbalances along the way. This is not an original thesis. But it’s a welcome reality check on the current China hype. Of the many books that have observed the fragility and contradictions of China’s economic model, “China’s Great Wall of Debt” is the best. McMahon writes well, has a fine eye for detail and finds original stories to illustrate his argument.

Continue reading

Hayek’s Work Helps Explain the Link between Ultra-loose Monetary Policy and Political Instability

by Gunther Schnabl

The European Central Bank will increase the overall volume of its bond purchase program to 2,550,000,000,000 euros by September 2018. The main refinancing rate will remain at zero. Mario Draghi has stressed that this policy shall continue until inflation picks up sustainably (which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future). The works of Friedrich August von Hayek (1931, 1944, 1976) help to explain why the tremendous monetary expansion is increasingly causing growing economic and political instability in Europe.

Continue reading

The European Central Bank Drives the Political Polarization in Europe

by Sebastian Müller and Gunther Schnabl

Massive losses for Germany’s former catch-all parties (CDU/CSU and SPD) and record gains for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have caused turmoil in Germany’s political landscape. The tumbling leaders Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz keep affirming that good policies were simply not explained sufficiently. They blame globalization and refugees to be at the roots of growing political discontent. Meanwhile, a rightward shift in Austria and the Czech Republic has occurred, albeit the number of refugees in the Czech Republic is low and growth is high. Everywhere in Europe far-right parties flourish independently from the level of income and the number of welcomed refugees. What is the common driving factor?

Continue reading

Why Europeans Lost Trust in the ECB

by David Herok and Andreas Hoffmann*

Since the financial crisis, trust in the European Central Bank (ECB) has declined substantially among Europeans. We argue that the decline in trust is worrisome and can be both a cause and a consequence of the ECB’s policy failure.

Continue reading

Fed Policy and Velocity’s Dance

by Jerry O’Driscoll*

The U.S. economy has been growing slowly but steadily since the trough of the Great Recession in June 2009. Deep recessions are typically followed sharp recoveries. Not so this time.

More recently, there is the mystery of low inflation. The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core PCE index, has consistently fallen short of its target rate of 2 percent. In July 2017, it came in at a 1.41-percent annual rate. For the Fed, improved growth in employment and the falling unemployment rate should foreshadow a higher inflation rate. The rationale for this is the old Phillips Curve. The reality is that the model is flawed.[1] Continue reading

Inflation Is Not Measured Correctly

by Gunther Schnabl*

The European Central Bank (ECB) continues buying securities. By the end of 2017, the balance sheet is expected to have further grown by about 800 billion euros. This corresponds to a growth rate of 20 percent per year, while real growth of the euro area is expected to be only 1.5 percent. Despite this tremendous monetary expansion, euro area inflation remains below the two percent target. This raises the question of whether the quantity equation, which Mark Blaug called “the oldest surviving theory in economics,” is still valid.

Continue reading

Unintended Monetary Policy Effects – Tale II: ECB Crisis Policies

by Andreas Hoffmann and Nicolás Cachanosky

The Federal Reserve’s (Fed) and European Central Bank’s (ECB) policy responses to the recent financial disasters offer two tales of unintended consequences. Our previous post outlined undesired effects of the Fed’s policies. In this post, we suggest that the ECB’s stabilization policy did not only fail to achieve its goals. Monetary policy has also hampered the structural adjustment of the European economy and prolonged the crisis.

Continue reading

The Bank of Japan Creates a State-Led Monopolistic Banking System

by Taiki Murai and Gunther Schnabl[*]

In the second half of the 1980s, 13 Japanese city banks climbed into the group of the world’s largest banks, boosted by a domestic speculation boom. With the bursting of the Japanese financial “bubble” in the early 1990s, a gradual decline followed. Since then, the Japanese city banks have been driven by Japanese monetary policy into a concentration process, which has produced new giants without increasing efficiency. Continue reading

Should Central Banks Lean Against the Wind?

by Andreas Hoffmann

The pre-crisis Jackson Hole Consensus view on how to take asset market developments into account in monetary policy can be summarized as follows: Because it is hard to spot bubbles in asset markets with certainty ex-ante, central bankers should not lean against the wind when there seems to be a boom in financial markets (as long as the inflation rate does not pick up). However, as a rapid fall in asset prices can pull the real economy into the maelstrom of crisis, monetary policy should react decisively when a bubble bursts and “clean up the mess” to  prevent spillovers to the real economy.

Because there is empirical evidence that countries with greater credit and asset market booms in the 2000s experienced more severe financial crises in 2007-9, the pre-crisis consensus view has lost popularity. Policymakers and academics have started to think of ways to curb financial booms and lower the probability of crisis using macroprudential regulation or leaning-against-the-wind monetary policy. Continue reading

Two Tales of Unintended Consequences of Monetary Policy – Tale 1

by Nicolás Cachanosky and Andreas Hoffmann

Even when a policy is successful in achieving its desired ends, we have to consider its unintended and unforeseen consequences, resulting from cumulative market adjustments to policy changes that make it hard to judge the overall outcome of a policy in our complex economy. The Federal Reserve and European Central Bank’s monetary policy responses to the 2008 financial crisis offer two tales of major unintended consequences. This post discusses unintended outcomes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s crisis policies. In our next post, we address ECB policies.

Continue reading

Globalization Alone Does Not Produce Losers!

by Gunther Schnabl*

The Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump were unexpected and were followed by a search for explanations. Subsequently, the common view spread that globalization is at the root of the frustrations of more and more people who are susceptible to strong nationalist statements from populists. This is surprising because for a long time, the reduction of trade barriers was acknowledged to be a basis for global prosperity. Why should the accepted view suddenly be so different?

Continue reading

Beware of Financial Repression

by Andreas Hoffmann

Government debt levels in many advanced economies, especially in Southern Europe, in the US and in Japan, have reached peacetime records. People are worried and rightly so: C. Reinhart and K. Rogoff have provided evidence that elevated debt-to-GDP ratios may contribute to stagnation or even debt crises. As austerity policies are unpopular with voters and growth remains rather sluggish, Reinhart and Rogoff suggest that governments might have to consider other options to reduce debt-to-GDP ratios. Debt should be liquidated via financial repression. It’s how governments typically dealt with high levels of debt in history, they say. This time is not different.

Continue reading

The Fed’s Institutional Design

by Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr.[1]

I have been reading Central Bank Governance & Oversight Reform, edited by John H. Cochrane and John B. Taylor. It is a conference volume of unusually high quality with all the discussions of presentations included.

I plan to write more about the book later, but to highlight one chapter here. It goes beyond the usual topics, covered well in the book, on rules versus discretion, credible commitments, policy legislation, and the historical record.

Continue reading

The Blanchard Danger

by Roger Koppl

Oliver Blanchard tells us “Where Danger Lurks”  in the macro-finance world.

The big theme is nonlinearity, which is a profoundly conservative move: DSGE modeling is just fine and we don’t need to rethink it at all. We just need to add in some nonlinearities. Blanchard does not tell how to calibrate a model with extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. But if the system is chaotic, it is also unpredictable, so how can you pretend to merely add nonlinearities to DSGE models?  It seems like a pretty direct contradiction to me. I mean, you can have the model in a trivial sense, of course. But calibration is an empty exercise that will not let you look around corners.

Blanchard’s second main message is alarming: We do need theoretical innovation, however, in measuring systemic risk. In the modern network literature on financial markets and cascades, one key point is risk externality. My portfolio choice makes your portfolio riskier. We need two things to fix this market failure. First, we need Pigou taxes, which cannot be calculated unless everyone tells the regulator his portfolio so that it can measure systemic risk and calculate a separate Pigou tax for each financial institution. Second, we need to reduce systemic risk. (“[S]teps must be taken to reduce risk and increase distance” from the “dark corners” of the macro-finance system.) In the network literature I suspect Blanchard is alluding to, this is to be done (at least in some of the articles) by having the regulator directly control the portfolios of financial institutions. (Names include: Acharya 2009; Beale et al. 2011; Caccioli et al. 2011; Gai, Haldane,and Kapadia 2011; Haldane and May 2011; and Yellen 2009, 2011)

I take a rather different view of both economic theory and the crisis in my recent IEA Hobart paper From Crisis to Confidence: Macroeconomics after the Crash.

Overall, Blanchard’s message is meant to be reassuring: We the smart macro-finance experts have now got the message on nonlinearities. So no further need to worry, we’ve got the situation in hand. To keep the system out of the “dark corners,” however, we will need more discretionary authority. You don’t mind trading off a bit of financial freedom for greater financial safety do you?

Zimbabwean Currencies: Condoms, Sweets and Paper Money

by Alexander Czombera*

If there is one single law in economics then it is that markets tend to equilibrium. Or, to align this with Grove’s law  (“Technology will always win. You can delay technology by legal interference, but technology will flow around legal barriers”), the free market will find its ways, whether in white, grey or black market. Despite of initially strong resistance of the Zimbabwean government it was market forces and not political consent that abolished central banking and legal tender laws in the South African country. Paper money of its original currency was replaced with notes from other countries, the shortage of coins was addressed by “efficient rounding”, condoms and sweets.

While inflation was mostly in double digits ever since its independence in 1980 it began to climb when the government faced high deficits and deep recessions in the early 2000s. In late 2008 it eventually reached a peak of  8.97 x 10 (to the 22nd power) percent. Prices doubled almost every day.

Because of the limited supply of foreign currencies and fixed exchange rates some people used this time to exploit arbitrage opportunities. The term burning money was coined when well-connected people in Harare exchanged their Zimbabwe Dollars into the limited supply of South African Rand at the fixed exchange rate and sold the Rand in the parallel market at a fair price.

The continuing devaluation of its own currency moved Zimbabwean citizens into other currencies, most notably Rand, Pula, US Dollar, Euro and Pound. In spite of legal tender laws these currencies became established in the regions which traded frequently with the countries issuing these currencies or having previously adopted them. Continue reading

Instead of the Fed

by Jerry O’Driscoll

 

For the month of November, Cato Unbound features an essay by me on “The Fed at 100.” Over the course of a week, there will be comments by Larry White, Scott Sumner and Jerry Jordan. I will respond to these as appropriate.

“End the Fed” has become a political slogan. Long before that, however, there was a serious academic literature on the prospects for competitive banking. I examine that literature in my posting. One interesting aspect of that literature is that important papers on free banking came out of Federal Reserve banks in the 1980s.

I argue that “the literature on free banking demonstrates the viability of private, competitive banking without a central bank.” But we now have a system of central banking almost everywhere. The fact that the road not taken would have been a viable path does not mean that we can retrace our steps and take that path now.

I devote roughly half the posting to consideration of what it would take to end the Fed. It would be a formidable but not impossible task. It is generally acknowledged that to be viable, a system of competing currencies would need convertibility into something that is in inelastic supply. Historically that has been a commodity, and I suggest gold is as good as any (though many disagree about that). What are the prospects for a return to a commodity standard?

Central banking is historically linked to governments running deficits and needing them to be financed. That is equally true today. Central banks cannot be abolished until permanent deficits are abolished, and governments are shrunk down in size. What are the prospects for that?

I have just returned from a very important conference at the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University on “Instead of the Fed: Past and Present Alternatives to the Federal Reserve System.” As the title suggests, alternatives to central banking in the past and the future were discussed. All three discussants of my posting also participated in important roles at that conference. I was a discussant of three papers, including one by Scott Sumner. So I imagine we will be continuing our dialog at Cato Unbound.

One of the most interesting discussions was among advocates of Fed abolishment and of Fed reform. All agreed that we need better monetary policy now and into the future, regardless of our differences on the issue of free banking versus central banking. I will observe that it was encouraging that people as diverse as George Selgin, Scott Sumner, Ben McCallum and I were able to arrive at a consensus.

I invite everyone to visit Cato Unbound this month and follow the conversation.

 

The Return of Inflationism?

by Mario Rizzo

The Fed has become desperate, not because the American economy is currently falling apart, but because the economy has stubbornly failed to respond well to the policies of the “best and the brightest.” And now, as if to welcome the impending chairmanship of Janet Yellen, stories are surfacing in various places about the growing consensus inside and outside of the Fed for inflation. There is not enough inflation to stimulate adequate economic growth. Just a little more, or maybe even a lot more (perhaps as high as 6 percent) is needed as Ken Rogoff of Harvard is suggesting.

The arguments being used today are not exactly the same as those of the 1970s, yet I have the feeling that I have been here before.  It is important to distinguish theory from what policy economics is about. Policy economics often comes down to rather simple ideas. The real world has a way of making a mockery of today’s sophisticated macroeconomic theory. For one thing, policy has to be relatively simple if it is to be transparent. Continue reading

The Euro: a Step Toward the Gold Standard?

by Andreas Hoffmann (University of Leipzig)

In a recent piece Jesus Huerta de Soto (2012) argues that the euro is a proxy for the gold standard. He draws several analogies between the euro and the classical gold standard (1880-1912). Like when “going on gold” European governments gave up monetary sovereignty by introducing the euro. Like the classical gold standard the common currency forces reforms upon countries that are in crisis because governments cannot manipulate the exchange rate and inflate away debt. Therefore, to limit state power and to encourage e.g. labor market reforms he views the euro as second best to the gold standard from a free market perspective. Therefore, we should defend it. He finds that it is a step toward the re-establishment of the classical gold standard.

There has been much criticism of the piece that mainly addresses the inflationary bias of the ECB. I actually agree with much of it. In particular, imperfect currency areas have the potential to restrict monetary nationalism. This can be welcomed just as customs unions that allow for free trade (at least in restricted areas). But I have some trouble with De Soto’s conclusions and the view that adhering to the euro (as did adhering to gold) gives an extra impetus for market reform – in spite of the mentioned e.g. labor market reforms in Spain. Continue reading

Cyprus

By Jerry O’Driscoll

 

Cyprus is the latest country to succumb to the financial rot in the European Union. Once a banking center, its citizens now cannot pay for their own imports. Exporters are demanding cash only for goods sent to Cypriote businesses. Credit has dried up. Businesses are closing because they have no goods to sell.

The economic crises in the various countries have fallen into two types. In the first type, highly indebted governments experienced fiscal crises and could no longer service their debts. Banks had lent to these governments and their condition was impaired by the value of the government bonds falling.  The economies went into recession, which was aggravated by higher taxes and enhanced collection of taxes. Greece is the poster child for a financial and economic crisis begat by a fiscal crisis. Continue reading

Easy Money, Slow Growth

by Jerry O’Driscoll

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Taylor explains why the U.S. recovery has been tepid while money growth has been very rapid. The recovery has set records for its weak pace, while money growth has set records for its rapidity. Taylor supplies some of the numbers.

Taylor continues an argument he made at the November 2012 Cato Monetary conference. It is the Fed’s policy that is causing the anemic recovery. To quote, “while borrowers like near zero interest rates, there is little incentive for lenders to extend credit at that rate.” He analogizes the Fed’s fixing interest rates to a policy of price ceilings on housing rents. Lenders supply less credit at the lower interest rates, as landlords supply less housing services under rent controls.

Taylor also notes that the Fed’s policy interferes with the signaling of the price system. It distorts capital allocation. Any decently trained micro economist would understand this. Why cannot the backers of the Fed’s policy? Continue reading

Clarifications of the Austro-Wicksellian Business Cycle Theory

by Mario Rizzo

There has been a lively debate on forecasts of high inflation made by those worried about the Fed’s recent policy of quantitative easing. For details I refer the reader to Daniel Kuehn’s excellent blog. The question to which I address myself is solely “What do these predictions have to do with core Austrian Business Cycle Theory?” This is my answer.

We must start with a few general points. First, I am talking about the Austro-Wicksellian business cycle theory as developed by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and as synthesized by Roger Garrison in his book Time and Money. I cannot take responsibility for versions constructed by others.  It is not that I think the others are necessarily wrong (and I mean no disrespect to them), but I do not know with sufficient precision what all these others are saying in the name of “Austrian theory.”

Secondly, the Austro-Wicksellian theory begins with either an endogenous increase in credit through the banking system or with an “exogenous” increase initiated by a central bank. In the latter case, however, the theory itself has little to say about the extent to which increases in base money will manifest themselves in increases in bank credit to producers.  (This may not be much of an issue during a boom but may be an issue during a recession or in a recovery.)

Third, the theory is fundamentally one about the “upper turning point” in the cycle – it is a theory about why a credit-induced boom must come to an end. It is not a theory, for better or worse, about the “secondary” factors that develop consequent on the break-up of the boom. These include possible recessionary-problems relating to bank runs (there is an Austrian inspired banking literature, but that is not the cycle theory) or what exactly will get investment expectations to turn around.  As to deflation, Lawrence White has argued that the logic of the theory requires the avoidance of deflation in accordance with Hayek’s very early recommendation to keep M V from falling.  (Hayek departed from this in the Depression, and later admitted he was incorrect to do so.)

Now to more specific points:   Continue reading