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.

Market Monetarism – The next big idea? | Quartz

Miles Kimball, Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan, gives a clear summary of Market Monetarism — its strengths and its weaknesses — concluding with these remarks:

Despite the differences I have with the market monetarists, I am impressed with what they have gotten right in clarifying the confusing and disheartening economic situation we have faced ever since the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. If market monetarists had been at the helm of central banks around the world at that time, we might have avoided the worst of the worldwide Great Recession. If the Fed and other central banks learn from them, but take what the market monetarists say with a grain of salt, the Fed can not only pull us out of the lingering after-effects of the Great Recession more quickly, but also better avoid or better tame future recessions as well.

Read more at Quartz 21–>Optimal Monetary Policy: Could the Next Big Idea Come from the Blogosphere?.

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again) | The Market Monetarist

Scott Sumner suggests that NGDP targeting is a far more conservative approach than the current inflation targeting practiced by the Fed and many other central banks:

Most of the blogging Market Monetarists have their roots in a strong free market tradition and nearly all of us would probably describe ourselves as libertarians or classical liberal economists who believe that economic allocation is best left to market forces. Therefore most of us would also tend to agree with general free market positions regarding for example trade restrictions or minimum wages and generally consider government intervention in the economy as harmful.

I think that NGDP targeting is totally consistent with these general free market positions – in fact I believe that NGDP targeting is the monetary policy regime which best ensures well-functioning and undistorted free markets.

And here explains why inflation is not a threat under NGDP targeting:

Inflation will be higher under NGDP targeting. This is obviously wrong. Over the long-run the central bank can choose whatever inflation rate it wants. If the central bank wants 2% inflation as long-term target then it will choose an NGDP growth path, which is compatible which this. If the long-term growth rate of real GDP is 2% then the central bank should target 4% NGDP growth path. This will ensure 2% inflation in the long run.

Read more at NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again) | The Market Monetarist.

Why QE is not working

Lars Christensen, Chief Analyst at Danske Bank, quotes David Beckworth in this lengthy but excellent 2011 paper on Market Monetarism — The Second Monetarist Counter-­revolution:

“…..Declines in the money multiplier and velocity have both been pulling down nominal GDP. The decline in the money multiplier reflects: (1) the problems in the banking system that have led to a decline in financial intermediation as well as (2) the interest the Fed is paying on excess bank reserves. The decline in the velocity is presumably the result of an increase in real money demand created by the uncertainty surrounding the recession. This figure also shows that the Federal Reserve has been significantly increasing the monetary base, which should, all else equal, put upward pressure on nominal spending. However, all else is not equal as the movements in the money multiplier and the monetary base appear to mostly offset each other. Therefore, it seems that on balance it has been the fall in velocity (i.e. the increase in real money demand) that has driven the collapse in nominal spending.”

Beckworth continues:

“[the] sharp decline in velocity appears to be the main contributor to the collapse in nominal spending in late 2008 and early 2009 as changes in the monetary base and the money multiplier largely offset each other. It is striking that the largest run-­ups in the monetary base occurred in the same quarters (2008:Q3, 2008:Q4) as the largest drops in the money multiplier. If the Fed’s payment on excess reserves were the main reason for the decline in the money multiplier and if the Fed used this new tool in order to allow for massive credit easing (i.e. buying up troubled assets and bringing down spreads) without inflation emerging, then the Fed’s timing was impeccable. Unfortunately, though, it appears the Fed was so focused on preventing its credit easing programme from destabilising the money supply that it overlooked, or least underestimated, developments with real money demand (i.e. velocity). As a consequence, nominal spending crashed.”

Christensen concludes:

Subsequent events have clearly proven Beckworth right and it is very likely that had the Federal Reserve not introduced interest on excess reserves then the monetary shocks would have been significantly smaller.

From Market Monetarism – The Second Monetarist Counter-­revolution