After the recent Draghi press conference announcing new measures to ease monetary policy in euroland, I responded to live questions from the Financial Times: “The ECB Eases,” podcast, FT Hard Currency, June 5, 2014 (including regarding my proposal that the ECB should buy dollar bonds).
And also to questions in writing from El Mercurio, June 5:
• Many critics point that these measures do not solve the economic problems of the Eurozone and in that they only benefit the financial markets. Do you agree?
The ECB should further ease monetary policy. Inflation at 0.8% across the eurozone is below the target of “close to 2%.” Unemployment in most countries is still high and their economies weak. Under current conditions it is hard for the periphery countries to bring their costs the rest of the way back down to internationally competitive levels as they need to do. If inflation is below 1% euro-wide, then the periphery countries have to suffer painful deflation.
Japan’s consumption tax rate is scheduled to increase substantially in April (from 5% to 8%). The motive is to address the long-term problem of very high debt. (Takatoshi Ito has stated the case in favor of the tax increase.) Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has apparently decided to go ahead with it. Many observers, however, are worried that the loss in purchasing power resulting from the sharp increase in the sales tax rate will send the Japanese economy back into recession.
It is very reminiscent of April 1997. I remember Larry Summers, who was then Undersecretary of the US Treasury, repeatedly warning the Japanese government that if it went ahead with the consumption tax hike that was scheduled for that date, Japan’s economy would go back into recession. I was in the US government then too. As the date drew near, I asked Summers why he persisted in offering Tokyo this unwanted advice, given that the prime minister of the day was clearly locked into the policy politically. Summers told me that he knew he was unlikely to change their minds, but that he wanted to be sure the Japanese would realize their mistake when they went ahead with the tax increase and his prediction subsequently came true – as it did.
The time is right for the world’s major central banks to reconsider the framework they use in conducting monetary policy. The US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank are grappling with sustained economic weakness, despite years of low interest rates. In Japan, Shinzō Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) was elected prime minister December 16 on a platform of switching to a new, more expansionary, monetary policy. Mark Carney, the incoming governor of the Bank of England, has made clear that he is open to new thinking.
I have argued that the best way to think of “black swan” events is as developments that, even though low-probability, can in fact be contemplated ahead of time. Even if they are the sort of thing that has never happened before within an analyst’s memory, similar things may have happened before in the distant past or in other countries.
What current possible shocks have probabilities that, even if fairly low, are high enough to warrant thinking about now? Some have been discussed ad infinitum, others hardly at all.
Throughout history, big economic and political shocks have often occurred in August, when leaders had gone on vacation in the belief that world affairs were quiet. Examples of geopolitical jolts that came in August include the outbreak of World War I, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Berlin Wall in 1961. Subsequent examples of economic and other surprises in August have included the Nixon shock of 1971 (when the American president enacted wage-price controls, took the dollar off gold, and imposed trade controls), 1982 eruption in Mexico of the international debt crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 1991 Soviet coup, 1992 crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. Many of these shocks constituted events that had previously not even appeared on most radar screens. They were considered unthinkable.
The Fed has come in for a surprising amount of criticism since its decision in the fall of 2010 to launch a new round of monetary easing — Quantitative Easing 2. Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are right not to give in to these attacks.
Critiques seem to be of four sorts. (Some are mutually exclusive.)
1) “QE is weird.” Quantitative Easing entails the central bank buying a somewhat wider range of securities than the traditional short-term Treasury bills that are the usual focus of the Fed’s open market operations. This has been a bold strategy, which nobody would have predicted 3 or 4 years ago. But it has been appropriate to the equally unexpected financial crisis and recession. Some who find QE alarmingly non-standard may not realize that other central banks do this sort of thing, and that the US authorities themselves did it in the more distant past. It is amusing to recall that when Ben Bernanke was first appointed Chairman, some reacted “He is a fine economist, but he doesn’t have the market experience of a Wall Street type.” The irony is that nobody who had spent his or her career on Wall Street would have had the relevant experience to deal with the shocks of the last three years, since none of them were there in the 1930s. But as an economic historian, Bernanke had just the broader perspective that was needed. Thank heaven he did.
Robert Zoellick put a few sentences about gold toward the end of a column in today’s FT that are drawing a lot of attention. I doubt very much if the World Bank President has in mind a return to the gold standard, but goldbugs and critics alike are talking as if he does.
Even if one placed overwhelming weight on the objective of price stability — enough weight to contemplate a rigid straightjacket for monetary policy — gold would not be a suitable anchor. The economy would be hostage to the vagaries of the world gold market, as it was in the 19th century: suffering inflation during periods of gold discoveries and deflation during periods of gold drought. This is well-known. I am confident Zoellick understands it. (He and I were in the same macroeconomics seminar at Swarthmore College in the 1970s.)
Everyone asks for tips: Where can I put my money? Stocks or bonds have done very badly over the last year, needless to say, and one cannot be confident that they have hit bottom. Should one just leave everything in banks and money market funds? Surely there must be something else worth buying? Continue reading →