Very good video from Project Syndicate looking at the recovery of the US economy and if it is sustainable. Also was Trump responsible for the growth or Obama? Maybe Janet Yellen and central bankers with such low interest rates for a long period of time. However if there is another downturn do governments have the tools to grow the economy again? It seems that central banks have run out of ammunition i.e. no room to cut interest rates further. There is agreement that the levels of employment are not sustainable in the future and the focus should be on assisting low wage work and help people prepare for and keep work- ‘reward work’.
- Features Nobel laureates Angus Deaton and Edmund Phelps, along with Barry Eichengreen,
- Rana Foroohar author of ‘Makers and Takers’
- Glenn Hubbard Dean of Columbia Business School
From the Espresso app by The Economist I came across a useful graph showing inflation figures in emerging economies. I used this with my NCEA Level 2 class when we discussed inflation and how if the inflation rate is below the target rate there may be room to loosen monetary policy and cut interest rates. This should stimulate demand in the economy and increase output and employment.
In America investors are experiencing the novelty of an inflation scare. But in many emerging economies, including several of the biggest, price pressures are at unusual lows. In China and Indonesia inflation is below target. In Brazil, for the first time this century, it has remained under 3% for seven straight months. And in Russia, where the central bank is meeting today, prices are rising at their slowest pace since the fall of the Soviet Union. This lack of inflationary pressure gives central bankers some welcome room for monetary manoeuvre. Even if America’s Federal Reserve turns hawkish, emerging markets need not slavishly follow its lead.
The Economist had an article in its Finance and Economics section on the fact that after record low interest rates and extended quantitative easing global inflation seems stubbornly low – see graph. In order to explain this you need to consider the model that central banks use to explain inflation. There are three elements to this model:
1. The price of imports. As the price of imports increase whether it is raw materials or finished products, the price of local goods become more expensive which increase the general price level. Also if a country finds that its exchange rate depreciates the price of imports rises. Oil is a very inelastic import and with a barrel of oil below $30 in 2016 there was little pressure on the CPI. Where inflation has been higher is in those countries that have withdrawn price subsidies and also had sharply falling currencies – Argentina 24% and Egypt 32%.
2. Public Expectations. In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.
Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves. In Japan firms and employees have become conditioned to expect a lower rate of inflation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for companies to raise wages by 3% to try and kick start inflation.
3. Capacity pressures. This refers to how much ‘slack’ there is in the economy or the ability to increase total output. If capacity pressures are tight that means an economy will find it difficult to increase output so there will be more pressure on prices as goods become more scarce. Unemployment is the most used gauge to measure the slack in the economy and as the economy approached full employment the scarcity of workers should push up the price pf labour – wages. With increasing costs for the firm it is usual for them to increase their prices for the consumer and therefore increasing the CPI. However many labour markets around the world (especially Japan and the USA) have been very tight but there is little sign of inflation. This assumes that the Phillips curve (trade-off between inflation and unemployment) has become less steep. Research by Olivier Blanchard found that a drop in the unemployment rate in the US has less than a third as much power to raise inflation as it did in the mid 1970’s.
This flatter Phillips curve suggests that the cost for central banks in higher inflation of delaying interest-rate rises is rather low. See graph below showing New Zealand’s Phillips Curve
The FT had an excellent article back in April last year that covered many concepts which are a part of Unit 4 of the CIE A2 Economics course. It covers the liquidity trap, deflation, MV=PT, circular flow, Monetary Policy, Quantitative Easing etc.
The article focuses on the liquidity trap with Monetary Policy being the favoured policy of central banks. However by pushing rates into negative territory they are actually encouraging a deflationary environment, stronger currencies and slower growth. The graph below shows a liquidity trap. Increases or decreases in the supply of money at an interest rate of X do not affect interest rates, as all wealth-holders believe interest rates have reached the floor. All increases in money supply are simply taken up in idle balances. Since interest rates do not alter, the level of expenditure in the economy is not affected. Hence, monetary policy in this situation is ineffective.
Normally lower interest rates lead to:
- savers spending more
- capital being moved into riskier investments
- cheaper borrowing costs for business and consumers
- a weaker currency which encourages exports
But when interest rates go negative the speed at which money goes around the circular flow (Velocity of Circulation) slows which adds to deflationary problems. Policymakers pump more money into the circular flow to try to stimulate growth but as price fall consumer delay purchases, reducing consumption and growth.
The article concludes by saying Monetary Policy addresses cyclical economic problems, not structural ones. Click below to read the article.
The global liquidity trap turns more treacherous.
Part of the excellent Al Jazeera documentary series about Russia, which addresses the problems facing many Russians today. The global economic crisis, conflicts with neighbouring countries and the drop in oil prices all played their part in the demise of the Russian people. There is a very good interview with the former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenk who held the position during Yelstin’s reign. He explains very simply how you grow your economy and that there must be money in the banks so that companies can borrow and invest. Buying US Treasury Bills was loaning money to the US and paying for their deficit. Meanwhile the infrastructure and public services declined rapidly causing a lot of anguish amongst the people. You can’t suddenly jump from a socialist system into the free market. Worth a look.
Another good video from Paul Solman of PBS ‘Making Sense of Financial News’.
In his new book, “The End of Alchemy,” Mervyn King still worries that the world banking system hasn’t reformed itself, eight years after its excesses led to collapse. He states that it’s easy with hindsight to look back and say that regulations turned out to be inadequate as mortgage lending was riskier than was thought. Furthermore, you are of the belief that the system works and it takes an event like the GFC to discover that it actually doesn’t.
Paul Solman asks the question that a large part of the problem that caused the GFC was the Bank of England and the US Fed were not able to keep up with the financial innovation that was going on in both of these countries. King refutes this by saying that there were two issues that were prevalent before the GFC:
- Low interest rates around the world led to rising asset prices and trading looked very profitable.
- Leverage of the banking system rose very sharply – Leverage, meaning the ratio of the bank’s own money to the money it borrows in the form deposits or short-term loans.
Central banks exist to be lenders of last resort. Problem: Too big to fail. And that’s what began happening in England, just like America, in the ’80s and ’90s. There needs to be something much more robust and much more simple to prevent the same problem from happening again. King makes two proposals:
- Banks insure themselves against catastrophe by making enough safe, secure loans so they have assets of real value to pledge to the Central Bank if they need a cash infusion in a hurry.
- Force the banks to keep enough cash on hand to cover loans gone bad as during the crisis banks didn’t have enough equity finance to absorb losses without defaulting on the loans which banks have taken out, whether from other bits of the financial sector or from you and I as depositors.
He finally states that the Brexit vote doesn’t make any significant difference to the risks facing the global banking system. There were and are significant risks in that system because of the potential fragility of our banks, and because of the state of the world economy.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the global economy was battling the menace of stagflation – high inflation and high unemployment. In order to counteract this, monetary policy was seen as responsible for controlling the inflation rate through the adoption of targeting. The New Zealand government was the first country to introduce this through the Reserve Bank Act 1989 which gave the responsibility of the central bank to keep inflation between 0-2% (later changed to 1-3%). Monetary policy should therefore play the lead role in stabilizing inflation and unemployment with fiscal policy playing a supporting role with automatic stabilisers – economic stimulus during economic downturns and economic contractions during high growth periods. Fiscal policy is therefore focused on long term objectives such as efficiency and equity.
In the post financial crisis world the usefulness of monetary policy is dubious. The natural rate of interest has now dropped to historical low levels. The natural rate of interest being a rate which is neither expansionary or contractionary. The issue for the central banks is how to bring about a stable inflation rate when the natural rate of interest is so low.
Historical Natural Rates of Interest
In the 1990’s the natural rate of interest globally was approximately between 2.5% and 3.5% but by 2007 these rates had decreased to between 2 – 2.5% – see graph. By 2015 the rate had dropped sharply and as can be seen from the graph near zero in the USA and below zero in the case of the euro zone. The reasons for this decline in the natural rate were related to the global supply and demand for funds:
- Shifting demographics and the ageing populations
- Slower trend productivity and economic growth
- Emerging markets seeking large reserves of safe assets
- Integration of savings-rich China into the global economy
- Global savings glut in general
Therefore the expected low natural rate of interest is set to prevail when the economy is at full capacity and the stance of monetary policy in neutral. However this lower rate means that conventional monetary has less ammunition to influence the economy and this will mean a greater reliance and other unconventional instruments – negative interest rates. In this new environment recessions will tend to be more severe and last longer and the risks of low inflation will be more likely.
Future strategies by to avoid deeper recessions.
Governments and central banks need to be a lot more creative in coping with the low natural rate environment. Fiscal policy could be used in conjunction with monetary policy with the aim of raising the natural rate. Therefore long-term investments in education, public and private capital, and research and development could be more beneficial. More predictable automatic stabilisers could be introduced that support the economy during boom and slump periods. Additionally unemployment benefit and income tax rates could be linked to the unemployment rate. The reality is that monetary policy by itself is not enough especially as the natural rate of interest and the inflation rate are so low. What can be done:
- The Central Bank would pursue a higher inflation target so therefore experiencing a high natural rate of interest which leaves more room to cut to stimulate demand. The logic of this approach argues that a 1% increase in the inflation target would offset the harmful effects of an equal-sized decline in the natural rate
- Inflationary targeting could be replaced by a flexible price-level of nominal GDP, rather than the inflation rate.
Monetary policy can only do so much but with global interest rates at approximately zero there needs to be the support of the politicians to enlist a much more stimulatory fiscal policy. Monetary policy has run out of ammunition and we cannot rely on central banks to fight recessions. However a less politicised fiscal policy, which is free to act immediately, has the ammunition to revive the economy.
Monetary Policy in a low R-star World – FRBSF Economic Letter
The Economist: September 24th 2016 – The low-rate world
A HT to Yr 13 student Albere Schroder for alerting me to this interview with the four most recent US Federal Reserve chiefs.
- Janet Yellen, the current Federal Reserve chairwoman was joined by:
- Ben Bernanke (2006-2014)
- Alan Greenspan (1987-2006)
- Paul Volcker (1979-1987)
Although the Fed Reserve chiefs served during widely divergent eras and are known to have different political views, the most notable take-away of the evening was the extent of their deep agreement.
There was a consensus that the Fed’s post-crisis rescue efforts have been successful and the economy is currently on a steady growth path, rather than rising thanks to a bubble that will soon burst. The remarks were a sharp rebuttal to the conventional wisdom of the contemporary Republican party and many grassroots conservatives that excessive stimulus from the Fed is either on the verge of sparking a drastic uptick in inflation, or already fostering a stock market or asset bubble.
“I’m not saying that the government should always be spending,” Bernanke said. “But at certain times, particularly in a recession, when the central bank is out of ammunition or ammunition is relatively low, then fiscal policy does have a role to play, yes.” Ben Bernanke
Greenspan had other ideas in that he disagreed with the idea that government spending should be increased during a downturn as this impacts on the country’s longer-term debt problem. Worth a look.
The Reserve Bank of Australia lowered its cash rate by 25 basis points to two percent in early May. The Bank had already dropped the cash rate by 25 basis points in February this year. In announcing its decision, the Bank commented on the decline in international commodity prices over the past year, which had resulted in a decline in Australia’s terms of trade. As a result, business capital expenditure (especially in mining) is expected to be weak. The Bank is expecting stronger growth in employment and an improvement in household demand. Low mortgage rates are resulting in strong house price inflation, especially in Sydney, and the Bank is “…working with other regulators to assess and contain risks that may arise from the housing market”.
China’s third interest rate cut in six months has spurred concerns the mainland’s economic slowdown is hitting where it hurts: the labour market. The People’s Bank of China (POBC) reduced reserve requirement ratios in April (the proportion of funds that banks have to hold with the central bank) in an effort to promote lending growth in the country. It has been reported that the cut in the reserve requirements ratio will allow banks to increase lending by about 1.2 trillion yuan. The POBC also reduced both the benchmark lending and deposit rate by 25 basis points to 5.1 percent and 2.25 percent, respectively, in response to weaker-than-expected economic activity data, which has raised concerns that the government’s annual gross domestic growth (GDP) target of “around 7 percent” might not be accomplished. Maintaining stable employment has been a top priority for the Chinese government as it steers the world’s second largest economy away from an export-driven model to one based on consumption.
Source: CNBC, MONTHLY ECONOMIC REVIEW May 2015 – NZ Parliamentary Research Library.
The European Central Bank (ECB) recently announced that when banks now deposit money with them that it would pay -0.2%. In other words banks have to pay the central bank for the privilege of depositing money with them.
What is a negative real interest rate?
A real interest rate is the stated rate (2.5%) minus the inflation rate (2%) – real rate = 2.5% – 2% = 0.5%. As real rates fall it attracts more borrowing and less saving.
*Savers lose money each year to inflation
*Borrowing and consumption should rise.
Euro Zone – Interest rates 0.05%, inflation -0.6 = real rate of 0.65%
To get negative real rates, the nominal interest rate must be lower than the rate of inflation; if inflation is negative, the nominal interest rate must also fall below zero. As soon as the rate banks offer fall below that, savers have an incentive to withdraw their money and put it under the mattress. By charging negative rates the central banks are hoping that the trading banks will keep more of their money and therefore lend it out to investors. However the desire to reduce a banks reserves is futile as if someone borrows money from a bank and buys a new car the money is paid to the car company who will then deposit the money in their account which increases the reserves of the bank.