Tag: monetary policy

Inflation Is Largely a Global Phenomenon

When economic journalists speculate about looming inflation risks in the U.S. or any other country, they implicitly assume that each country’s inflation depends on that country’s fiscal or monetary policies, and perhaps the unemployment rate. Yet The Economist for March 3rd–9th shows approximately 1–2 percent inflation in the consumer prices index (CPI) for virtually all major economies. 

Inflation rates were surprisingly similar regardless of whether countries had budget deficits larger than ours (Japan and China) or big surpluses (Norway and Hong Kong), regardless of whether central banks experimented with “quantitative easing” or not, and regardless of whether a country’s unemployment rate was 16.9 percent (Spain) or 1.3 percent (Thailand). 

The latest year-to-year rise in the CPI was below 1 percent in Japan and Switzerland, 1.5 percent in Hong Kong and the Euro area, 1.6 percent in Canada and China, 1.8 percent in Sweden, 1.9 percent in Norway and Australia, 2 percent in South Koreas and 2.1 percent in the U.S.  Among major countries, U.K. was on high side with inflation of 2.7 percent.  Three economies with super-fast economic growth above 6 percent (India, Malaysia and the Philippines) do have slightly higher inflation—above 3 percent—but the CPI is up just 1.6 percent in one of them, namely China. 

Major Country Inflation

The remarkable similarity of CPI inflation rates is surprising since countries measure inflation differently and consume different mixes of goods and services. The fact that inflation rates are nonetheless so similar, and move up and down together, suggests that inflation is largely a global phenomenon.  The U.S. may well have a disproportionate influence on global inflation, since it accounts for about 24 percent of global GDP and key commodities are priced in U.S. dollars.  Yet U.S. inflation nonetheless goes up and down in synch with other major economies, as the graph shows. 

The War against Cash, Part III

Although it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it warrants, one of the greatest threats to liberty and prosperity is the potential curtailment and elimination of cash.

As I’ve previously noted, there are two reasons why statists don’t like cash and instead would prefer all of us to use digital money (under their rules, of course, not something outside their control like bitcoin).

First, tax collectors can’t easily monitor all cash transactions, so they want a system that would allow them to track and tax every possible penny of our income and purchases.

Second, Keynesian central planners would like to force us to spend more money by imposing negative interest rates (i.e., taxes) on our savings, but that can’t be done if people can hold cash.

To provide some background, a report in the Wall Street Journal looks at both government incentives to get rid of high-value bills and to abolish currency altogether.

Some economists and bankers are demanding a ban on large denomination bills as one way to fight the organized criminals and terrorists who mainly use these notes. But the desire to ditch big bills is also being fueled from unexpected quarter: central bank’s use of negative interest rates. …if a central bank drives interest rates into negative territory, it’ll struggle to manage with physical cash. When a bank balance starts being eaten away by a sub-zero interest rate, cash starts to look inviting. That’s a particular problem for an economy that issues high-denomination banknotes like the eurozone, because it’s easier for a citizen to withdraw and hoard any money they have got in the bank.

Now let’s take a closer look at what folks on the left are saying to the public. In general, they don’t talk about taxing our savings with government-imposed negative interest rates. Instead, they make it seem like their goal is to fight crime.

The Fed Should Quit Making Interest-Rate Promises

If there’s anything we ought to have learned from the recent boom and bust, it’s that a Fed commitment to keep interest rates low for any considerable length of time, like the one Greenspan’s Fed made in 2003, is extremely unwise. 

The problem isn’t simply that interest rates should be higher, or that the Fed should have a different plan for how it will adjust them in the future.  It’s that the Fed shouldn’t be making promises about future interest rates at all, because it can’t predict whether a rate chosen today will be consistent with stability in six months, or in one month, or even in a week.

Instead of making promises about future interest rates, the Fed should promise to change its interest rate target whenever doing so will serve to maintain a reasonable level of nominal spending or nominal gross domestic product, which is the best way to avoid causing either a boom or a bust.

Financial Crisis Lessons From Experimental Economics

Economic scholarship tends to operate in silos. That is, banking scholars don’t talk to macroeconomists, etc. Sadly, this is even more so between finance, monetary and experimental economics.  In his latest book, Rethinking Housing Bubbles, Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith, the father of experimental economics, offers a number of lessons that could greatly improve the stability of our financial system.

Some of these include:

  • Markets for perishable goods behave generally well and do not tend to display bubbles, whereas asset markets commonly display bubble behavior in experimental settings.
  • Allowing margin buying (leverage) significantly increases bubble size and duration for inexperienced buyers, but not for experienced.
  • Even sophisticated buyers, when inexperienced, display bubble behavior. 
  • Experience helps: repeated play in an experimental game brings price behavior closer to fundamentals.
  • Informed “inside traders” can reduce size of bubbles.
  • Presence of futures markets can stabilize prices in spot markets.
  • Additional liquidity increases size and duration of bubbles.
  • Bubbles can develop even when participants are fully informed as to operation of the market (they know with certainty future incomes streams and how the market functions).

In terms of policy recommendations, the list above suggests a few things to me. First, policymakers should pay close attention to asset markets. Second, higher down-payments, particularly among first-time buyers, are likely to reduce housing bubbles. Policy should be tolerant of informed buyers, such as hedge funds, buying-up foreclosed homes. 

Consumer disclosures, like Truth in Lending, are likely to be useless. Financial literacy should focus less on information and more on experience. Excess central bank liquidity is likely to contribute to asset bubbles.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that bubbles in experimental asset markets are quite common, especially markets were buyers have little experience and engage in few transactions (sounds like the housing market). 

We will touch upon some of these issues, and others, when Vernon Smith comes to Cato next week to discuss his new book. You can register (or watch streaming) here.


Yellen and the Fed

The Senate Banking Committee just voted 14 to 8 to confirm Janet Yellen’s nomination to be the new Chair of the Federal Reserve. She will likely go on to be confirmed by the full Senate.

Much of the coverage has focused on Yellen as a person, when the real story is on the Fed as an institution. Sometimes individuals have profound influence on Fed policy, such as Paul Volcker  in the late 1970s and 1980s. Over time, however, the institutional structure of the central bank and the incentives facing policymakers matter more.

The Federal Reserve famously has a dual mandate of promoting maximum employment and price stability. The Federal Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, has great discretion in weighting the two policy goals. As a practical matter, the vast majority of the time, full employment receives the greater weight. That is because the Fed is subject to similar pressures as are the members of Congress to which the Fed must report. In the short run, voters want to see more job creation. That is especially true today. The United States is experiencing weak growth with anemic job creation.

Never mind that the Fed is not capable of stimulating job creation, at least not in a sustained way over time. It has a jobs mandate and has created expectations that it can stimulate job growth with monetary policy. The Fed became an inflation-fighter under Volcker only when high inflation produced strong political currents to fight inflation even at the cost of recession and job creation.

The Federal Reserve claims political independence, but it has been so only comparatively rarely. Even Volcker could make tough decisions only because he was supported by President Carter, who appointed him, and President Reagan, who reappointed him. Conventionally defined inflation is low now, so the Fed under any likely Chair would continue its program of monetary stimulus. Perhaps Yellen is personally inclined to continue it longer than might some other candidates. But all possible Fed chiefs’ would face the same pressures to “do something” to enhance job growth, even if its policy tools are not effective.

The prolonged period of low interest rates has made the Fed the enabler of the federal government’s fiscal deficits. Low interest rates have kept down the government’s borrowing costs, at least compared to what they would have been under “normal” interest rates of 3-4 percent.

Congress and the president have been spared a fiscal crisis, and thus repeatedly punted on fiscal reform. They are likely to continue doing so until rising interest rates precipitate a crisis. How long that can be postponed remains an open question.

Bondholders Should Think Twice about Argentina’s Debt Swap Offer

The video below shows interim-Argentine president Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (he was president for a week) announcing before Congress in late December 2001 that Argentina would default on its debt—the largest sovereign default in history. Rodríguez was interrupted by a standing ovation and chants of “Argentina! Argentina!”

Fast forward 10 years to May 2012 when Argentina’s congress voted overwhelmingly to seize (without compensation so far) Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the country’s largest oil company whose controlling stake belonged to Spain’s Repsol. When the 207-32 vote was announced, the chamber erupted in a wild celebration, with deputies hugging each other and singing:

This is just a taste of Argentina’s flimsy rule of law.

On Iran’s Inflation Bogey

With Friday’s Iranian Presidential election fast approaching, there has been a cascade of reportage in the popular press about that opaque country. When it comes to economic data, Iran has resorted to lying, spinning and concealment – in part, because of its mores and history, and more recently, the ever-tightening international sanctions regime. In short, deception has been the order of the day.

The most egregious example of this deception concerns one of Iran’s most pressing economic problems – rampant inflation. Indeed, while the rest of the world watched Iran’s economy briefly slip into hyperinflation in October of 2012, the Statistical Centre of Iran and Iran’s central bank both defiantly reported only mild upticks in inflation.  

It is, therefore, rather surprising that the major international news outlets have continued to report the official inflation data without so much as questioning their accuracy. Even today, with official data putting Iran’s annual inflation rate at a mere 31 percent, respectable news sources faithfully report these bogus data as fact.

As I have documented, regimes in countries undergoing severe inflation have a long history of hiding the true extent of their inflationary woes. In many cases, such as the recent hyperinflation episodes in Zimbabwe and North Korea, the regimes resort to underreporting or simply fabricating statistics to hide their economic problems. Often, they stop reporting economic data all together; or, when they do report economic statistics, they do so with such a lag that the reported data are of limited use by the time they see the light of day.

Iran has followed this course – failing to report important economic data in a timely and replicable manner. Those data that are reported by tend to possess what I’ve described as an “Alice in Wonderland” quality. In light of this, it is fair to suggest that any official data on Iran’s inflation be taken with a grain of salt.

So, how can this problem be overcome? At the heart of the solution is the exchange rate. If free-market data (usually black-market data) are available, the inflation rate can be estimated. The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable estimate. Indeed, PPP simply states that the exchange rate between two countries is equal to the rates of their relative price levels. Accordingly, if we can obtain data on free-market exchange rates, we can make a reliable estimate of the inflation rate.

In short, changes in the exchange rate will yield a reliable implied inflation rate, particularly in cases of extreme inflation. So, to calculate the inflation rate in Iran, a rather straightforward application of standard, time-tested economic theory is all that is required.

Using this methodology, it is possible to estimate a reliable figure for Iran’s annual inflation rate. At present the black-market IRR/USD exchange rate sits at 36,450. Using this figure, and a time series of black-market exchange rate data that I have collected over the past year from currency traders in the bazaars of Tehran, I estimate that Iran’s current annual inflation rate is 105.8 percent – a rate almost three and a half times the official annual inflation figure (see the accompanying chart).