Credit bubbles and GDP targeting

In 2010 Scott Sumner first proposed that the Fed use GDP targeting rather than targeting inflation, which is prone to measurement error. Since then support for this approach has grown, with Lars Christensen, an economist with the Danish central bank, coining the term Market Monetarism.

Sumner holds that inflation is “measured inaccurately and does not discriminate between demand versus supply shocks” and that “Inflation often changes with a lag… but nominal GDP growth falls very quickly, so it’ll give you a more timely signal….” [Bloomberg]

The ratio of US credit to GDP highlights credit bubbles in the economy. The ratio rises when credit is growing faster than GDP and falls when credit bubbles burst. The graph below compares credit growth/GDP to actual GDP growth (on the right-hand scale). The red line illustrates a proposed GDP target at 5.0% growth.

US Credit Growth & GDP Targeting

What this shows is that the Fed would have adopted tighter monetary policies through most of the 1990s in order to keep GDP growth at the 5% target. That would have avoided the credit spike ahead of the Dotcom crash. More importantly, tighter monetary policy from 2003 to 2006 would have cut the last credit bubble off at the knees — avoiding the debacle we now face, with a massive spike in credit and declining GDP growth.

While poor monetary policy may have caused the problem, correcting those policies is unlikely to rectify it. The genie has escaped from the bottle. The only viable solution now seems to be fiscal policy, with massive infrastructure investment to restore GDP growth. That may seem counter-intuitive as it means fighting fire with fire, increasing public debt in order to remedy ballooning private debt.

Rising public debt is only sustainable if invested in productive infrastructure that yields market-related returns. Not in sports stadiums and public libraries. Difficult as this may be to achieve — with politicians poor history of selecting projects based on their ability to garner votes rather than economic criteria — it is our best bet. What is required is bi-partisan selection of projects and of private partners to construct and maintain the infrastructure. And private partners with enough skin in the game to enforce market discipline. I have discussed this at length in earlier posts.