Category Archives: Nobel Prize

Nominal GDP Targeting is Left, Right?

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The recent surge in interest in Nominal GDP Targeting, as an alternative to money targeting or inflation targeting if the central bank is to commit to a nominal target of some sort, has prompted some pushback.   This is not surprising.  But one of the responses is most peculiar.  This is the allegation (1) that the surge comes from liberals opportunistically adopting an idea that was originally proposed by conservatives, and (2) that they will not stick with this “fad” in the longer run because it is only designed to fit current circumstances of high unemployment and low output.   Remarkably, every component of this argument is wrong.

 I have in mind, especially, the views of Benn Steil and Dinah Walker of the Council on Foreign Relations, as expressed in “Why  Nominal GDP Targeting is a Fad“:  
 “NGDP targeting having once been the intellectual stomping ground of economists on the right (notably Scott Sumner), its newest supporters come overwhelmingly from the left (such as Christy Romer)…. We think the rage will be short-lived. The reason is that NGDP targeting’s newest supporters are bad-weather fans. That is, they like it now, when NGDP is well below its 2007 “trend” line, meaning that the policy implies extended and more aggressive monetary loosening. But what happens when NGDP goes above its target, as it eventually will? NGDP targeting then requires tightening….”

Let’s consider the analytics first, and hold off awhile on the less edifying political labels.   The nominal GDP proposal was originally studied and supported by many prominent economists in the 1980s.  The problem at the time was a need for monetary discipline, anchoring expectations, and reducing inflation.   Nominal income targeting was not designed as a way of getting easier monetary policy, but rather the opposite.   It is equally good for either purpose:  the target can be set high or low, depending on the times.

Originally, the leading competitor for the role of monetary anchor was money supply targeting (monetarism).  This was the regime that was adopted in the early 1980s by the central banks of the largest economies. But they were forced to abandon it subsequently.  Later on, the leading competitor became Inflation Targeting;  but it too ran into difficulties in the 2000s.   The general argument for nominal GDP throughout has been that it is robust to a variety of shocks, positive and negative.   It dominates money targeting in that it is robust with respect to velocity shocks.  It dominates inflation targeting in that it is robust to supply shocks. 

In other words, Nominal GDP Targeting is not a short-term expedient but is fit precisely for the long run.

It is true that a major reason why the nominal GDP proposal has been revived over the last two years is that it could help deliver easy monetary policy in the short run, which is what the economy has needed recently.  Some supporters may indeed view it as a short-term expedient, to be jettisoned when the economic recovery has become better established.   And I can see the attraction of the proposal that the Economist magazine has made for the UK: that the Bank of England commit to keeping interest rates low until nominal GDP has re-attained a level 10% higher than today’s level.  But I personally favor keeping it as the framework in the longer term, with loose nominal GDP targets set annually at a horizon of two years.  The width of the bands and the degree of commitment could be similar to whatever it would be under the alternative of inflation targeting.

The targeted nominal GDP growth rate would not be the same every year, let alone every decade.    If the US were to adopt the framework now, 4 ½ % would not be a bad number for the center of the target range.  (A lower number would be appropriate for some, like Japan, and a higher number for others, especially emerging market countries.)

Steil and Walker support their argument that the proposal is not fit for the long run with an attractive graph.  It shows that in many of the years since 1981 when the rate of growth of nominal GDP was above 4 ½ %, which they claim would imply monetary tightening under the proposed regime, unemployment was above 5 ½ %, prompting the Fed to loosen (wisely, in the authors’ view, if I understand them right).

The problem with this argument is that of those eight years when the Fed is shown loosening  in response to unemployment above 5 ½ % (by my count), seven of the years came during the first part of the sample: 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1993.   (The only year from the more recent half of the sample is 2003.)  Why is this a problem for the argument?  In the 1980s and even the 1990s, it seems to me that nobody would have set a target so aggressive as to require monetary tightening when nominal GDP reached 4 ½ %.   Back then we were coming down from high levels of inertial inflation and this process was understood to be gradual.   Furthermore, the rate of growth of potential output was higher than today as well.   Thus the numbers chosen for the nominal GDP target would have been higher than today.  They would not have forced the Fed to tighten when unemployment was 7%.

Now to the political labels.  Recall that Steil-Walker claim that the nominal GDP proposal was originally put out by economists on the right and has recently been adopted opportunistically by economists on the left as a short-term fad.   But the originator of the nominal GDP proposal in the UK was Sir James Meade (1978, 1982), who (it turns out) was an “interventionist” and member of the Social Democratic Party.  The earliest proponent in the US was James Tobin (1980, 1983), also a Nobel Prize winner and also on the left.   (I am trying to avoid the confusing word “liberal” which in the US usually means on the left but in the UK continues usually to mean pro-free-market.) 

The recent revival of Nominal GDP Targeting came from a group of bloggers who describe themselves as conservatives (Scott Sumner, Lars Christensen and David Beckworth,)   Even those now proposing a one-time threshold for the level of nominal GDP are not noticeably  clustered on the left of the political spectrum.  The current British chancellor is, of course, a Conservative.   Perhaps what is confusing some observers is the reflexive, but wrong, assumption that Labor/Democrats always favor more expansionary policy than Conservatives/Republicans.

In other words, it would be more correct to say that the idea was a proposal of the left picked up by the right than the other way around, as Steil and Walker claim.   But there are plenty of nominal GDP proponents from each side of the political spectrum, currently as in there were in the 1980s, as well as many whose political views are not immediately apparent.  That is all to the good.   This proposal is neither liberal nor conservative.  Nor is it one that I, personally, will be abandoning as soon as the economy returns to full employment.   With money targeting and inflation targeting discredited, Nominal GDP Targeting is left.  Right?


[Notice to readers:  Starting today, my blogposts will also appear at On Deck, the blog space of Project Syndicate.   Some are elaborated versions of Project Syndicate op-eds.  Others, like this one, stand alone.]

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Politicians Scorn Professors

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My preceding blogpost, the Hour of the Technocrats, was inspired by the recent accession of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, both professional economists, to the prime ministerships of Italy and Greece, respectively.   Today we turn to the U.S., where the political process seldom views academic credentials benevolently.

In the United States, Senator Richard Shelby scorned President Obama’s 2010 nomination of Peter Diamond, an eminent MIT Professor of Economics, and prevented his confirmation as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board.  The Alabama Senator farfetchedly claimed that the nominee was not qualified, and persisted despite the coincidence that Diamond won the Nobel Prize in Economics soon after his nomination (deservedly).   But, then, Shelby was holding up an astounding 70 of President Obama’s nominations, just to try to get two pork projects in his home state funded.   Diamond finally withdrew in June 2011, because Shelby and other anti-technocratic Senators had blocked the confirmation process for 14 months and were clearly going to continue to do so.   Diamond, like Axel Weber in my preceding blogpost, was comfortable foregoing the limelight. 

Of course there are other kinds of technocrats than economists.  Senate Republicans also blocked Elizabeth Warren – a Harvard professor, but of Law, not Economics — from becoming the first head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Even at the “quant” end of the finance field spectrum, the anti-technocrats in Congress have hamstrung the Treasury’s new Office of Financial Research, and it has not been possible to find a finance professor to be the first Director of the new agency.   As always, the Senate continues to hold up on political grounds confirmation of highly qualified technocrats for ambassadorships, judgeships, and so on.  The latest was the end last week of the campaign to get the Senate to confirm Don Berwick, another Harvard professor (School of Public Health), who had been doing an excellent job of running Medicare and Medicaid.   Another current example is the stalled nomination of Michael McFaul, an outstandingly qualified political science professor from Stanford, to be ambassador to Russia.   The American public has been losing out on the services of a lot of top-quality officials.

It goes without saying that academic or technical expertise is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for a successful government official.   Far from it.  On the one hand, many of my colleagues on the faculties of elite universities would not make great policy makers — lacking some of the desirable leadership, managerial, or other interpersonal skills.  On the other hand, many excellent political leaders have not been intellectuals.  George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower are two examples among U.S. presidents.

I would, however, argue that it is necessary to pass a certain threshold of awareness of facts and curiosity about the world.  To take just a few examples of geographical knowledge, a candidate who does not know where the Battle of Concord was fought, where Paul Revere rode, the difference between Brazil and Bolivia, that Africa is not a single nation, which country Iran is, or which country Libya is, is not likely to make a good president.   Call me an egghead if you will; but I consider a decision to invade the wrong country to be more than a minor technical slip.


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Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are Down in the Recession. So, Then, Is “Green GDP” Up?

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Alan Krueger, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Affairs, suggested in a recent speech a useful metaphor to distinguish different kinds of economic indicators. Some indicators are like the gauges on the dashboard of the car — industrial production, unemployment, inflation and so on.  They give the latest bits of information on the business cycle outlook, for businesspeople, government policy-makers, economic forecasters, and anyone else who wishes to follow such developments at high frequency. Many of these numbers are collected on a monthly basis. Other statistics are like the results of 10,000 mile checkups – the poverty rate, infant mortality, life expectancy, carbon emissions, natural resource depletion, the crime rate, traffic congestion, leisure time, and other measures of inequality, health, the environment and the quality of life.  They supplement market-measured activity and are needed in order to get a comprehensive feel for welfare and the longer term sustainability of the economy. This second category of statistics is more often collected on an annual basis.

GDP is the single indicator that gets the most attention. Lately much of that attention has been very critical. In late September, the most recent in a long line of critics weighed in. This group was weighty indeed: the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress was created by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, chaired by Joseph Stiglitz, chair-advised by Amartya Sen, and coordinated by Jean-Paul Fitoussi.  Nobel-Prize winners abound. The Commission believes that we have been focusing too much on market-measured output:   “By their reckoning, much of the contemporary economic disaster owes to the misbegotten assumption that policy makers simply had to focus on nurturing growth, trusting that this would maximize prosperity for all. “What you measure affects what you do,” Mr. Stiglitz said…”If you don’t measure the right thing you don’t do the right thing.” (New York Times, Sept. 23, 2009.)

I certainly agree that the non-market variables are important, both in the sense that they should be measured well and in the sense that policy-makers should put some priority on them as objectives. But I question whether the measurement issue and the objective issue are as closely linked as many would have it. I especially question any claims that the role of GDP should be in practice be replaced with a single concept that factors in these other measures of the health, inequality, the environment, etc.    GDP is a comprehensive measure of market output, is available quarterly, and belongs on the dashboard. The other variables are typically available only annually, and there is no way to know how to aggregate them into a single number, let alone to aggregate them together with the standard economic measures. By all means, take the 10,000 mile checkups seriously. But don’t remove GDP from the dashboard.

I am not sure I see the claim that the measurement problem is the reason for the myriad errors our national policy makers have made in recent years (notwithstanding the Bush Administration’s notorious downgrading of science). We have perfectly good tools for helping to make decisions about environmental regulation, for example, in the form of cost benefit analysis.  GDP measurement issues have nothing to do with that. Perhaps you believe that a Republican Administration may want to pressure the EPA to count some environmental damages at zero or suppress the evidence entirely; perhaps you believe that a Democratic Administration may want to count some economic costs at zero or abandon cost benefit analysis entirely. Yes, that would have a big effect on the policy decision. But what does any of it have to do with GDP?

In the same newspaper reporting Joe’s comments, I read of a development that has received mysteriously little attention: according to numbers from the Energy Information Agency, greenhouse gas emissions fell sharply in 2008 (by more than 2 ½ %), are falling even more in 2009 (about 6%), and in the next few years are almost certain to remain easily below the levels of 2005.   (See the chart below.)  The oil price spike in 2008 deserves some credit. Some might wish to try to give some credit to policy too. But there can be no doubt that the main reason for the sharp fall in emissions is the recession. A simple statistic for the unitiated: although CO2 emissions in an average year rise by 0.8%, they fell that much in both 1991 and 2001, the last two recessions, in addition to the much larger drop in the much larger recent recession. That is not a coincidence.

How should one value a 9 percent fall in emissions against a 3.8% fall in real GDP (from the 2007Q4 peak to the 2009Q2 apparent-trough)? I strongly suspect that a majority of Americans, no matter how well-informed regarding the science, would think that the output loss outweighs the climate benefit by far. A minority, in favor of very drastic action on climate change, might implicitly choose the other way. (I myself am in favor of pretty serious action, but not in favor of policies that impose huge economic costs, either because they are too drastic or are designed in an inefficient way. And of course engineering a recession would be a very inefficient way to do it.) Are Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen among those who think we are better off on balance? I have no idea. To ask the question is to help illuminate why attempts to sum everything up into a single number, such as “Green GDP,” fail.

Incidentally, if Joe does think that the estimated 9 percent fall in emissions outweighs the 4% loss in GDP, then he doesn’t think that our current situation constitutes a “contemporary economic disaster,” but, rather, a gain in welfare.  It would then logically follow that any policy decisions that got us into this situation (whether attributable to incomplete information about banking activity or inequality or anything else), were good, not bad!

Source: US Energy Information Agency

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