Tag Archive for 'ECB'


Monetary policy, fear of commitment and the power of infinity

This is a fascinating time to be thinking about monetary policy…

Like everybody else, central banks can do two things:  they can talk, or they can act.

Some people say that talk is cheap and, in any event, discretion implies bias.

Other people point out that things like central bankers’ concern for their reputation mean that it’s perfectly possible to promise today to implement history-dependent policy tomorrow. Some cheeky people like to point out that this amounts to saying that, when in a slump, a central bank should “credibly commit to being irresponsible” in the future.

In fact, some people argue (pdf) that, in my words, “all monetary policy is, fundamentally, about expectations of the future.”  But if that’s the case, why act at all? Why not just talk and stay away from being a distorting influence in the markets?

There are two reasons: First, since since talk is cheap, credibility requires that people know that you can and, if necessary, will act to back it up (talk softly and carry a big stick). Second, because if you can convince people with actions today, you don’t need to explicitly tell them what your policy rule will be tomorrow and central bankers love discretion because no rule can ever capture what to do in every situation and well, hey … a sense of mystery is sexy.

OMO stands for “Open Market Operation”. It’s how a central bank acts.  Some scallywags like to say that when a central bank talks, it’s an “Open Mouth Operation.” Where it gets fun (i.e. complicated) is that often a central bank’s action can be just a statement if the stick they’re carrying to back it up is big enough.

In regular times, a typical central bank action will be to announce an interest rate and a narrow band on either side of it. In theory, it could be any interest rate at all, but in practice they choose the interest rate for overnight loans between banks. They then commit to accepting in or lending out infinite amounts of money if the interest rate leaves that narrow band. Infinity is a very big stick indeed, so people go along with them.

So what should a central bank do when overnight interest rates are at (or close to) zero and the central bank doesn’t want to take them lower, but more stimulus is needed?

Woodford-ites say that you’ve got to commit, baby. Drop down to one knee, look up into the economy’s eye and give the speech of your life. Tell ’em what you promise to do tomorrow. Tell ’em that you’ll never cheat.  Pinky-swear it … and pray that they believe you.

Monetarists, on the other hand, cough politely and point out that the interest rate on overnight inter-bank loans is just a price and there are plenty of other prices out there. The choice of the overnight rate was an arbitrary one to start with, so arbitrarily pick another one!

Of course, the overnight rate wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. It was chosen because it’s the price that is the furthest away from the real economy and, generally speaking, central bankers hate the idea of being involved in the real economy almost as much as they love discretion. They watch it, of course. They’re obsessed by it. They’re guided by it and, by definition, they’re trying to influence it, but they don’t want to be directly involved. A cynic might say that they just don’t want to get their hands dirty, but a realist would point out that no matter the pain and joy involved in individual decisions in the economy, a cool head and an air of abstraction are needed for policy work and, in any event, a central banker is hardly an industrialist and is therefore entirely unqualified to make decisions at the coalface.

But as every single person knows, commitment is scary, even when you want it, so the whole monetarist thing is tempting. Quantitative Easing (QE) is a step along that monetarist approach, but the way it’s been done is different to the way that OMOs usually work. There has been no target price announced and while the quantities involved have been big (even huge), they have most definitely been finite. The result? Well, it’s impossible to really tell because we don’t know how bad things would have been without the QE. But it certainly doesn’t feel like a recovery.

Some transmission-mechanism plumbers think that the pipes are clogged (see also me).

Woodford-ites say that it’s because there’s no love, baby. Where’s the commitment?

Monetarists say that infinity is fundamentally different to just a really big number.

Market monetarists, on the other hand (yes, I’m sure you were wondering when I’d get to them), like to argue that the truth lies in between those last two. They say that it’s all about commitment (and without commitment it’s all worthless), but sometimes you need an infinitely big stick to convince people. They generally don’t get worked up about how close the central bank’s actions are to the real economy and they’re not particularly bothered with concrete steps.

So now we’ve got some really interesting stuff going on:

The Swiss National Bank (a year ago) announced a price and is continuing to deploy the power of infinity.

The European Central Bank has switched to infinity, but is not giving a price and is not giving any forward guidance.

The Federal Reserve has switched to infinity and is giving some forward guidance on their policy decision rule.

The Bank of England is trying to fix the plumbing.

It really is a fascinating time to be thinking about this stuff.


Policy options for the Euro area [Updated]

I here list a few policy options for the Euro area that I support, broadly in descending order of my perception of their importance.  Everything here is predicated on an assumption that the Euro itself is to survive and that no member nation of the Euro area is to exit the union.  I don’t claim that this would solve the crisis — who would make such a claim? — but they would all be positive steps that increase the probability of an ultimate solution being found.

  • Immediately establish a single, Euro area-wide bank deposit guarantee scheme.  A single currency must absolutely ensure that a Euro held as money in Greece be the same as a Euro held as money in Germany.  That means that retail and commercial deposits in each should be backed by the same guarantee.  I have no firm opinion on how it should be funded.  The classic manner is through a fee on banks proportional to their deposits, but if Euro area countries ultimately prefer to use a Tobin-style tax on transactions, that’s up to them.  Just get the thing up and running.  Of course, a unified deposit guarantee also requires a unified resolution authority in the event of an insolvent bank collapsing.  There are many and varied forms that fiscal union can take; this is the most urgent of them all.  I am shocked that this does not already exist.
  • The ECB should switch from targetting current inflation to expected future inflation.  The Bank of England already does this.  Accepting that any effect of monetary policy on inflation will come through with a lag (or at least acknowledging that current inflation is backward looking), they “look through” current inflation to what they expect it to be over the coming few years.  This is important.  Current inflation in the Euro area — i.e. the rate of change over the last 12 months — is at 3%.  On the face of it, that might make an ECB policymaker nervous, but looking ahead, market forecasts for average inflation over the coming five years are as low as 0.85% per year in Germany.  They will be much lower for the rest of the Euro area.  Monetary policy in the Euro area is much, much too tight at the moment.  At the very least, (a) interest rates should be lowered; and (b) the ECB should announce their shift in focus toward forward inflation.
  • The ECB should start to speak more, publicly, about forms of current inflation that most affect future inflation.  This follows on from my previous point, but is still logically distinct.  The Fed likes to focus on “core” inflation, stripped of items with particularly volatile price movements.  I don’t much care whether it is non-volatile prices or nominal wages, or even nominal GDP.  I just want the ECB to be speaking more about something other than headline CPI, because it is those other things that feed into future headlines.
  • The ECB’s provision of liquidity to the banking system, while currently large, is not nearly large enough.  The fact that “German Bunds trade below the deposit facility rate at the ECB and well below the Overnight Rate” is clear evidence of this.  I currently have no opinion on whether this ought to be in the form of increasing the duration of loans to Euro area banks, relaxing the collateral requirements for loans or working with member countries’ treasuries to increase the provision of collateral.  I certainly believe (see my second point above) that interest rates should be lowered.  The point, as far as is possible, is to make replacing lost market funding with ECB funding more attractive to banks than deleveraging.
  • A great deal of Euro area sovereign debt is unsustainable; hair-cuts are inevitable and they should be imposed as soon as possible (but, really, this requires that a unified bank resolution authority be established first).  The argument for delaying relies on banks’ ability to first build up a cushion of capital through ongoing profitability.  When banks are instead deleveraging, the problem is made worse by waiting.
  • Credit Default Swaps must be permitted to trigger.  The crisis may have its origins in the the profligacy of wayward sovereigns (frankly, I think the origins lie in the Euro framers not appreciating the power of incentives), but the fundamental aspect of the crisis itself is that various financial assets, previously regarded as safe, are coming to be thought of as risky.  By denying market participants the opportunity to obtain insurance, Euro area policymakers are making the problem worse, not better.  Market willingness to lend to Greece in 2025 will in no way depend on how we label the decisions made in 2011 and 2012.
  • Every member of the Euro periphery should be in an IMF programme.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Italy.  If the IMF does not have sufficient funds to work with, the ECB should lend to it.  All politicians in Euro periphery countries should be speaking to their electorates about multi-decade efforts to improve productivity.  These things cannot be fixed in two or three years.  They can, at best, be put on the right path.
  • For every country in an IMF programme, all sovereign debt held by the ECB should be written down to the price at which they purchase it.   If the ECB buys a Greek government bond at, say, a 20% discount to face value, then that bond should be written down by 20%.  The ECB should not be in a position to make a profit from their trading if Europe finds its way through the overall crisis.  Similarly, the ECB should not be in a position to take a loss, either — they should not be required to take a hair-cut below the price they pay for Euro area sovereign debt.

Note that I have not yet used the phrase “Euro bond” anywhere.  Note, too, that a central bank is only meant to be a lender of last resort to banks.  The lender of last resort to governments is the IMF.

If Euro area policymakers really want to engage in a fiscal union (a.k.a. transfers) beyond the absolutely essential creation of a unified bank deposit guarantee scheme, it is perfectly possible to do so in a minimal fashion that does not lessen the sovereignty of any member nation:  Have a newly created European Fiscal Authority (with voluntary membership) provide the minimum universally agreed-on level of unemployment benefits across the entire area, funded with a flat VAT.  Any member country would retain the ability to provide benefits above and beyond the minimum.  This will have several benefits:

  • Since its membership would be voluntary and it would provide only the minimum universally agreed level, it cannot, by definition, constitute a practical infraction on sovereignty;
  • It will help provide pan-European automatic stabilisers in fiscal policy;
  • It will provide crucial intra-European stabilisation;
  • It will increase the supply of long-dated AAA-rated securities at a time when demand for them is incredibly high; and
  • It will decrease the ability of Euro member countries to argue that they should be able to violate the terms of the Maastricht Treaty at times of economic hardship as at least some of the heavy lifting in counter-cyclical policy will be done for them.

———————-

Update 30 Nov 2011, 13:05 (25 minutes after first publishing the post):

It would appear that the world’s major central banks have announced a coordinated improvement in the provision of liquidity to banks.  This is a good thing. Press releases:


The ECB starts raising interest rates (updated)

[Updated to include labour cost inflation too]

Here are the stories at the FT, the WSJ, the Economist (in their blogs) and for a won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children perspective, the Guardian [1].

There are plenty of arguments against the increase.  You could argue that there’s a sizeable output gap, so any inflation now is unlikely to be persistent.  You could argue that core inflation is low and that it’s only the headline rate that’s high.  You could argue that with the periphery countries facing fiscal crises, they need desperately to grow in order to avoid a default or, worse, a breakup of the Euro area.  You could argue that a period of above-average inflation in Europe’s core economies and below-average inflation in the periphery would allow the latter to (slowly) achieve what a currency devaluation would normally do:  make them more competitive, attract business and allow them to grow in the long run (above and beyond the short-run stimulus of low interest rates).

On that last point, though, it’s worth looking at the data.  It’s a great idea, in principle, but unfortunately and despite all the austerity packages, the data show exactly the opposite picture at present.  Here’s the current year-over-year inflation rate broken down by country, from Eurostat (HICP and Labour Costs):

 

 

Economy HICP Labour Cost Index
Euro area as a whole 2.4% 2.0%
Germany 2.2% 0.1%
France 1.8% 1.5%
Greece 4.2% 11.7%
Ireland 0.9% n/a
Portugal 3.5% 1.0%
Spain 3.4% 4.1%

 

 

For some reason Ireland doesn’t seem to be included in the Labour Cost data.  Look at Greece and Spain.  They’re getting more expensive to do business in relative to Germany and France.  Portugal is in the right area, but with Germany’s growth rate in Labour Costs so low, they’re still coming out worse.  The same story is painted in consumer inflation.  It looks like Ireland is doing what it needs to, but Greece, Portugal and Spain are all getting even less competitive.

Here’s my theory:  The ECB hates the fact that they’re temporarily funding these governments, but can’t avoid that fact.  Furthermore, they reckon that Greece, Ireland and Portugal are eventually going to restructure their debt.  Given that they cannot shove the temporary funding off onto some other European institution, the ECB either doesn’t care whether it’s in 2013 or today (they’ve already got the emergency liquidity out there and it can just stay there until the mess is cleaned up) or quietly wants them to do it now and get it over with.  Either way, the ECB is going to conduct policy conditional on the assumption that it’s as good as done.

 

[1]  Just kidding, Guardian readers.  You know I love you.  Mind you, the writing in that article could have been better — it says that inflation has gone above the ECB’s target of 2% and never mentions what it actually is, but later mentions the current British inflation rate (4.4%) without explaining that it is for Britain and not the Euro area.