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Stagflation: be alert, not alarmed – EP143 + transcript

In early June 2022, the World Bank downgraded its global economic growth forecast and warned of the rising risk of stagflation, the uncommon combination of high inflation and high unemployment, or falling GDP growth. Stagflation is a portmanteau word, combining stagnation with inflation. Economists first noticed stagflation in 1970s USA (see the chart below) and other advanced economies, when it was triggered by the 1973 oil price shock, which pushed up prices and reduced industrial output as input costs soared.

A simultaneous acceleration of inflation and an increasing unemployment rate in the mid-1970s surprised many people at the time, because it was contrary to the Phillips curve trade-off between unemployment and inflation.

In Episode 143 of Economics Explored, show host Gene Tunny and his colleague Arturo Espinoza discuss how the current global situation is similar and dissimilar to the 1970s, including consideration of recent perspectives from the World Bank and BIS.  While we also have a commodity price shock, associated partly with the war in Ukraine, it is less in proportionate terms than in the 1970s, and we also have better macroeconomic policy frameworks (i.e. explicit inflation targets) than in the 1970s. So the takeaway of the episode is that, while we should be alert to the possibility of stagflation, at this stage we shouldn’t be alarmed.

You can listen to episode 143 using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps. A transcript and relevant links are also available below.

Links relevant to the conversation

Is a US recession imminent? w/ Michael Knox, Chief Economist, Morgans Financial – EP142 – Economics Explored (Previous episode with Michael Knox)

Jobs report May 2022: Payrolls rose 390,000 in May, better than expected as companies keep hiring 

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=stagflation&geo=US (Google Trends for stagflation)

The Fed must act now to ward off the threat of stagflation | Financial Times

Are major advanced economies on the verge of a wage-price spiral? (BIS Bulletin 53)

Commodity market disruptions, growth and inflation (BIS Bulletin 54)

Robert Heller’s paper on International Reserves and Global Inflation (from p. 28)

Stagflation Risk Rises Amid Sharp Slowdown in Growth (World Bank report) 

Stagflation danger prompts  World Bank to cut growth outlook (Washington Post article)

EP59 on the Natural Rate of Unemployment (re. Milton Friedman’s AEA presidential address)

Friedman’s presidential address

Chart of the Week – The real price of crude oil – Callum Thomas

Clarification

Australia’s wage price index increased 2.4% through the year to March 2022 (see Wage Price Index, Australia, March 2022 | Australian Bureau of Statistics

Transcript of EP143 – Stagflation: be alert, not alarmed

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored. My personal feeling is that; and this is informed by my conversation with Michael Knox last week. I don’t think we’ll end up with stagflation similar to the 70s or rather, I hope not. I don’t see at the moment.

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 143 on Stagflation.

Joining me this episode is my colleague at Adept Economics, Arturo Espinosa. Arturo, good to have you on the show again.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  00:44

Thank you, Gene. I am glad to be here.

Gene Tunny  00:48

Excellent, yes. It should be a good conversation because we know that this issue of Stagflation is topical with the recent World Bank report that we’ll get into in this episode. But before we do that, I just thought I’d provide an update on last week’s episode.

So, in Episode 142, I spoke with Michael Knox, who is the Chief Economist at Morgan’s, which is a major Australian wealth management and stock broking firm. And Michael and I chatted about the prospects for the US and Australian economies and what’s been happening with monetary policy. And Michael made a bold prediction in that episode, on where the Australian cash rates, so the policy rate that’s controlled by the Reserve Bank of Australia, so that’s the equivalent of the Federal Reserve in the US or the Bank of England. And he forecast that they would lift it by 50 basis points. So, half a percentage point from 0.35%, he forecast that they would increase it to 0.85%. He was the only economist in Australia who was forecasting there, and he explained why he thought that was the case in the episode.

So, if you’re in the audience, you haven’t listened to that episode yet, please, think about having to listen to it because Michael, I think is one of the best economic forecasters out there. He looks at the global economy, he looks at the Australian economy. And it turned out that the Reserve Bank did increase the cash rate by 0.85%. And it surprised all of the other market economists, all the commentators, and now there’s all this talk about what does this mean for the economy?

Will people now have trouble paying their home loans? Will they get into financial trouble? And there’s a huge conversation about that now in Australia; well done to Michael Knox for forecasting that correctly.

And we were also chatting about this idea or this concern that there could be a recession coming up in the US. So, there’s been a lot of commentary about that. It’s associated with all of this commentary, all this discussion at the moment about stagflation, which we’re going to get into. But Michael is very optimistic about the US economy as we talked about, and just after that episode was published, there was some new data that came out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; at the BLS. And they reported better than expected, employment numbers in the US for May, CNBC reported that the US economy added 390,000 jobs in May, better than expected despite fears of an economic slowdown and with a roaring pace of inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday, at the same time, the unemployment rate held at 3.6% just above the lowest level since December 1969.

Okay, so that’s an update on last week’s episode. Okay. Any questions or thoughts on that, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  04:04

No, let’s start discussing about the topic.

Gene Tunny  04:09

Yep, about stagflation, absolutely. So, I want to devote the bulk of this episode, or the rest of this episode to talking about stagflation. This is something that I asked Michael about last week in our conversation. And I mean, this is something we haven’t; it’s a term that, that I remember, you know, I learned in when I studied Economics, and as you did, we would have learned this term stagflation about what happened in the 1970s. But we haven’t really heard it in the economic commentary for a while. So, there were decades when no one was really talking about it. And then there was this revival of interest in it, I think, from around late last year.

And if you look at the Google Trends Data, and I’ll put this chart on the show notes, so you can see, when interest in the concept of stagflation has picked up again. And that was from around, I think it was around September, 2021. And we’ve had various commentators talking about the risks of stagflation. So, on 25th of May this year, Martin Wolf; so Martin Wolf is one of the leading financial economic commentators in the world. He writes for The Financial Times. He wrote a column; “The Fed must act now to ward off the threat of stagflation.” And we know from the 1970s, the time to throttle an inflationary upsurge is at the beginning. And is there going to be a recession in the US and other leading economies? This question has naturally arisen among participants at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. So, you probably saw, I think that meeting, they had their World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland last week.

Martin Wolf wrote that this is however, the wrong question, at least for the US. The right one is whether we are moving into a new era of higher inflation and wage growth, similar to the stagflation of the 1970s. If so, what might this mean? That was one of the motivations for having this conversation today.

And almost as if I forecast that the World Bank would produce this study on stagflation, they released it overnight, or it came overnight our time. And so, we’ve just been looking at this morning, this new report, from the reserve; sorry, not the Reserve Bank, that’s our bank here in Australia, the World Bank. And the press release; June 7, press release, I’ll put this in the show notes. So, if you listen, and you’re interested, you can find that; stagflation risk rises amid sharp slowdown in growth.

So, you had a look at this earlier, Arturo, didn’t you? What were your main takeaways from this report from the World Bank?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  06:59

Well, I think these are very good reports, where they dedicate special focus on globalist inflation. And there is a section which they talk about similarities to the 1970s. They mentioned that they are three of them. The first is that supply shocks after a prolonged monetary policy accommodation, the existence of weaker growth. Also, there are some significant problems or inabilities in emerging economies. Those three things can be similar from 1970s to the current period.

Gene Tunny  07:51

This is because these supply side shocks really hurt those emerging economies more than the richer economies; is that the idea? Because they generally have lower incomes in those countries. And so, they’re going to be very badly affected by increases in oil prices, increases in food prices, and that can bring not only economic turmoil, but political turmoil as well.

So, what we might do is; we might revisit those, those similarities. Again, in the podcast first, it just occurred to me that we probably should, or I probably should just talk about what Stagflation is, what does it mean? And I couldn’t find any or there’s no strict definition of what it is. It’s a combination of unemployment and inflation or low GDP growth and high inflation. But there’s no agreed definition of it’s stagflation, if unemployment and GDP growth are x and y and inflation is there; there’s no quantitative definition as far as I can tell.

So, stagflation; it’s a pretty horrible word, if you think about it. I mean, it’s one of these, what do you call it? A portmanteau word. So, it’s a word that is a combination of other words, to try and convey a particular meaning, the combination of themselves. So, it’s a combination of stagnation, plus inflation. Glenn Hubbard’s introductory Economics textbook. So, Glenn Hubbard was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers for President George W. Bush, in the early 2000s. In his textbook, they define it as a combination of inflation and recession, usually resulting from a supply shock. Okay, and like with everything in Economics, we’ve defined a concept by referring to another concept, we have to define a lot of times. So, supply shock. What do we mean by that? We mean, something that increases the cost of inputs; it’s a shock on the supply side of the economy, our ability to produce.

It’s not like a demand shock, where there’s an increase in spending or an increase in the amount of money. It’s a shock to our productive capacity. So, this concept, I think, originally came into Economics, or it became prominent in the 1970s, when there was the huge spike in oil prices in 1973, when OPEC, because of the Arab countries are upset with the West because they were backing the Israelis in the war, I think it was the young people war. That meant that the cost of inputs increased. And when those inputs increase, we use oil, well for petrol and, you know, across the economy. And so, it’s pushing up costs of production and produces; firms will try and pass that on to customers. That can be inflationary. Okay.

And you mentioned supply shocks before, didn’t you? In terms of the similarities with the 70s? So, we’ve had that,

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  11:10

Yeah, we have the impact. However, there is a difference there in the case of the World Bank report, they say that the current shocks or current supply shocks are smaller, compared to those shocks in 1970s.

Gene Tunny  11:33

That’s right. I should have checked the numbers before I came on to record. But if you look at the real oil price back in the 70s, that was in proportionate terms, that was a huge increase, wasn’t it? I mean, it was multiples of the then current price, and it really shocked people. It was a huge shock to face those price rises.

So, I’ll have to dig out what that stat was and put it in the show notes. But that’s what they’re driving out there, aren’t they? They’re saying, well, okay, we’ve seen some big increases in commodities prices, but they’re, they’re smaller still than what we saw in the 1970s. So, they may have a chart and that report that we can refer people to in the show notes. Okay.

So, just on this definition of stagflation again, that was one definition. Now, note, there’s no quantitative; there aren’t any numbers in that definition. Dornbusch and Fisher; so, that was the textbook I use when I studied macro Economics back in the 90s. Rudy Dorn, Bush and Stan Fisher, so very prominent, US macro economists, I think are at MIT. They wrote that stagflation occurs when inflation rises, while output is either falling or at least not rising. And on well, actually, there’s probably no point me giving textbook page references, because this is sort of the 1994 edition. But in that edition, they wrote that during periods of stagflation, such as 1973, 74, 1980, and 1991. There are articles in the newspapers that the laws of Economics are not working as they should, because inflation is high or rising, even though output is falling.

So if we go to the, the data for the US, so I’ll put this chart in the show notes as well. We look at what happened in 1973 – 74. And this was a huge shock, I think at the time. We see that inflation went from a rate of 2 to 3%. And it ended up at a rate of over 10%. I think it looks like nearly 12½ % on this chart, I’ve pulled up. And so, we had those two years; well, after the ‘73 oil shock, so 74, 75 inflation is accelerating. And unemployment is also increasing, and it’s increasing from about 5% to nearly 8 to 9% or so. I’ll put this chart in, and I’ll just check those numbers. And this came as a big shock, because there was this concept of the Phillips Curve wasn’t there? There was this idea that there was this tradeoff between unemployment and an inflation, that if you had high unemployment, then at the same time, you should have low inflation. Or if you had high inflation, you’d have low unemployment. There was this idea that there was this trade off; because empirically, if you looked at the data for the 50s and 60s in the States, or for the UK or other advanced economies, it looked like there was this trade off. It looked like there was a menu from which economic policymakers could choose.

The typical story about the Phillips Curve was that, you could get unemployment down by stimulating your economy, a bit of Keynesian fine tuning, a bit of pump priming. You could reduce unemployment, but if you get unemployment; if you if you do reduce that, that puts more power in the hands of Labor relative to capital, you can tell stories about unions, you can tell stories about people being more aggressive in their wage negotiations, because Labor is scarcer, and that leads to higher inflation.

So, there’s this idea of a tradeoff. And this Phillips Curve was something that was found by Bill Phillips, who was a professor, Bill is from New Zealand originally. And he ended up being a professor at the London School of Economics. Have you heard about that? This is a bit of a tangent, but he built that hydraulic, economic model. Have you ever heard of that, ever heard of LSE?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  16:08

No, I haven’t heard about it.

Gene Tunny  16:11

And he developed this hydraulic, economic model in the 50s and 60s. They built a representation of the economy; they’re essentially modelling the circular flow of income with using water and mechanical parts. And this was a model that London School of Economics; I just remember that because she gave a lecture at the University of Queensland in 2016, Mary Morgan, she’s a professor at LSE, London School of Economics. She wrote a great book on the World in a Model. So, she’s done some great work on the history of economic modelling. Her first job, she said, was looking after that hydraulic computer.

So, Bill Phillips, one of the great economists, he discovered this correlation between all this trade off; the Phillips Curve, the relationship that ended up being influential in economic policy in the 60s until it broke down in the 70s. As we are talking about, he looked at UK wages growth, so wages, inflation and unemployment data. Even though what he did was look at wages data, well, it soon transferred as a concept to a tradeoff between price inflation and unemployment, because well, there is obviously a link between wages and prices, because employers will try and pass on those increases.

Does that all make sense? I was just trying to explain why this idea of this stagflation came as such a shock in the 1970s.

So, what was wrong with that Phillips Curve concept? Why didn’t it work out? Well, it was because of this supply side shock, wasn’t it? This was something that wasn’t really anticipated in that Phillips Curve story. And the other problem was that when you have high inflation, the expectations of people in the economy of workers and businesses, your expectations of inflation increase. You essentially, come to expect inflation and inflation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because every time there’s a wage negotiation, or a contract negotiation, you essentially allow for the future inflation, you expect it. And you have things like cost-of-living adjustments, you essentially build it into contracts and under wage bargaining. So that’s one of the reasons why the traditional Phillips Curve breaks down. And there was a very famous speech by Milton Friedman; the presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1968. And I’ve talked about this in a previous episode – Episode 59, on the Natural Rate of Unemployment. And Friedman argued, well, in the long run, there’s really no Phillips Curve, you might think that there’s some sort of tradeoff in the short run, that you can get unemployment down if you pump-prime; if you stimulate your economy, and you’ll get some inflation as a result of that or you could go the other way and try and contract the economy to reduce inflation.

But in the long run, there is no trade off; there’s no Phillips Curve to speak of this. The economy should gravitate towards a natural rate of unemployment. And inflation can be whatever is consistent with people’s expectations.

There’s a big problem if you don’t get inflation under control, and people come to expect inflation, and then you can just have persistently high inflation, and you can have that with high unemployment as well.

Have you seen those diagrams of the Phillips Curve, with the vertical long run Phillips Curve? And then if you start off at a point on that Phillips Curve, so say you’re at your natural rate of unemployment, and you’ve got high inflation expected, then what can happen is, there some sort of shock that increases unemployment. And so, you start off at that high point with high inflation already. Maybe, it eventually has some sort of; it does contribute to a reduction in inflation somewhat, but you still at that higher level of inflation. And so, you can have higher unemployment or high unemployment and high inflation still.

So, that was probably a bit more technical information than we needed. If you have a look at an intermediate or advanced macroeconomics textbook, they’ll have some diagrams; I have some models that go over, that we probably don’t need to look into that. But the main point is that this Phillips Curve, discovered by Bill Phillips; people thought it was this stable tradeoff between unemployment and inflation, didn’t hold in the long run. And if your economy is subject to the supply side shocks, so increase in the price of oil, for example. And then if people come to expect inflation, then you can get high levels of inflation. And they can be very persistent, and you can have the economy slow down, you’re going to have high unemployment, and inflation can still persist for a long time.

And if you did want to get that inflation down, you really need a change in monetary policy, you need a much more aggressive monetary policy, and you need a credible Central bank that can deliver it. And I think this is what Paul Volcker in the US did in the early 80s. And this is what when they massively tighten monetary policy, high interest rates, crunch the economy, but they did get inflation under control. And I think this is related to this point that the World Bank made. There was a point about better monetary policy frameworks. Is that right?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  22:37

Yes, that’s right. After that economic event occurring 1970s, most of Central banks started to control prices, try to target inflation. Also, they incorporated the old thing related to these rational speculative in order to take into account potentials proven that pulling golden, been analyzed before 1970s since the Phillips Curve wasn’t explained correctly, the prequel evidence, as you mentioned. In the short run, that Phillips Curve is playing well, but in the long run, they didn’t account other factors, and relationships was different. So, I think most of the Central bank started to work better in terms of expectations.

Gene Tunny  23:45

Yeah. And so, this is this point, that Central banks, they need to have a credible monetary policy. And one way of having a credible monetary policy is to have an explicit inflation target that you’re judged on. And that’s why our Reserve Bank of Australia has a 2 to 3% inflation target, and the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, they’re aiming for, I think it’s 2%. I’ll put that in the show notes. But they sort of; all of these Central banks tend to have inflation targets in 2 to 3%, which is a recognition that you’re going to have some inflation, but what you want to avoid is higher rates of inflation or double-digit inflation, or even worse, that’s what you really want to avoid, because that really causes a lot of misery. People can sort of, live with inflation of 2 to 3%.

So, that was this point about monetary policy; another thing that helps signal a credible monetary policy. So, by credible, we mean that people in the economy, businesses and workers know that if inflation starts to accelerate, the Central bank is going to squash that inflation as soon as it can. And that helps keep inflationary expectations down so people don’t come to expect higher inflation.

Okay, and one other thing that does help with the credibility of a Central bank is having an independent Central bank, who the worst thing you can have is if your Central bank is influenced by politicians; if it’s controlled by politicians, because, say they’re coming up to an election, there might be inflation increasing, but the politicians don’t want the Central bank putting up interest rates just before an election.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  25:43

That’s right. In the world, we have seen many examples. For example, Peru is a good example of a thing that would the government shouldn’t do. For example, in the middle of 80s, Peruvian government, had a high level of debt. That moment, government Allan Garcia took place, and he didn’t recognize the debth. So, they didn’t want to pay. And also, in the government, they started to print money because the other Central bank, was subordinated to the current government. And that was the world’s respond for [unclear] because Peru initiated a stage of hyperinflation. And also, Peru faced a recession period.

Gene Tunny  26:52

So, hyperinflation; there is a quantitative definition of hyperinflation. It’s when you have inflation running at about 50% a month or something. It’s a very high rate, and you can end up with annual inflation rates of over 1,000% or something, which is just mad. What they had in Germany in the 1920s. But also, we’ve seen it in South American countries in the;

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  27:18

Most South American countries, experience periods of hyperinflation.

Gene Tunny  27:23

So, you are highlighting one of the; when it gets really bad when you don’t have that independence. And because the Central bank is the bank for the government as the government just commits to making all of these payments, and it might not actually have the money, but the Central bank just prints the money. It just pays the bills for the government; the money is just created. So yeah, what they call modern monetary theory nowadays; bad results.

We’ve chatted about the Phillips Curve, why it’s not reliable. I’ll put links to all of these things I’ve mentioned particularly to Milton Friedman’s presidential address, which is just brilliant.

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  28:18

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Gene Tunny  28:47

Now back to the show.

Okay, now, one of the things Central banks are essentially wanting to avoid is this idea of a wage price spiral. So, we’ve talked about inflationary expectations, you want to avoid inflation becoming expected, and then it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, one of the concepts that disgusts is a wage-price spiral.

Okay, so in early May 2022, the Reserve Bank of Australia; this was a report in the Australian Financial Review. The Reserve Bank of Australia has warned of a wage price spiral if unions exploit the low jobless rate to push for higher pay rises to compensate for an inflation rate to peak at a higher than expected 6%.

So, what is a wage-price spiral? The Bank of International Settlements in Basel in Switzerland; it’s defined a wage price spiral in the following way, and this is in a bulletin that they produced, BIS bulletin number 53 on Major Advanced Economies on the verge of a Wage Price Spiral.

A wage price spiral entails feedback in both directions between wages and prices. Inflation then rises persistently on the back of such a spiral. Once the economy enters the spiral, workers bid up nominal wages more than prices, prompting firms to raise prices further, the likelihood of an economy entering the wage price spiral depends in part on macro-economic conditions.

Workers bargaining power is typically greater when Labor demand is strong and Labor supply is tight. Similarly, firms may have more pricing power when aggregate demand is strong. Labor market institutions also influenced the likelihood of a wage price spiral emerging.

Automatic wage indexation and cost of living adjustment. So C-O-L-A or COLA clauses make wage price spirals, more likely.

And this was important in the; well, it became an issue in the Australian election campaign, because the then opposition leader now Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese; did you see his comments when he was saying that, if we were in government, we would support workers being getting a wage rise in line with inflation. Inflation was rising at well; inflation was 5.1%. That was the last reported estimate from the Reserve Bank, which was higher than expected. And then, Anthony Albanese came out and said, yes, workers, their wages should increase by at least 5.1% To make up for that. And then, the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison tried to make a big thing out of that and he said, Anthony Albanese is a loose unit, because this could then lock in inflation permanently.

So, this is his concern about a wage price spiral and the BIS was arguing that, this sort of thing; there’s automatic wage indexation, which is almost what well, it’s essentially what Anthony Albanese, our current prime minister here in Australia was almost hinting at. I think he regretted making that comment, because they really don’t want to do that. And if I think they’ve walked back a bit from that position, I mean, they put a submission to the Fair Work Commission, ultimately, it’s up to the Fair Work Commission to decide the increase in minimum wages in Australia.

There was some criticism of the opposition leader at the time, because it could have; there were commentators who were saying, this is a sort of thing that risks a wage price spiral. And you could take that BIS note as supportive of that position. Ultimately, I don’t think that mattered much in the election campaign. So, who knows? I mean, it could have even increased support for Anthony Albanese. People think, well, that sounds fair enough that we’re compensated for inflation. Most people are wage earners as more wage earners than business owners in the country. So, it could have been a popular thing. The PM at the time was trying to say, well, he’s a loose unit, who knows how much impact it had on the election campaign?

Ultimately, I think the election was decided over concerns about climate change. There was this general perception out there that the government wasn’t doing enough on climate change, rightly or wrongly. And that was the dominant consideration.

Do you remember that whole debate or that whole discussion around the opposition leader’s comments?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  33:43

I remember that. I saw some news about it. I also reviewed some comments from some Australians, And some people or some citizens mentioned that the proposal is not correct for the current situation in the global economy. Because of course, if you want to raise salary, that will be loads, let’s say factor, or determinant to boost inflation pressures in Australia.

I remember that I checked some economic paper; it’s okay to raise the wages, but it could be implemented gradually. Or maybe you can target some sectors in order to improve the salaries but it’s not a good policy response to increase generally, the wages in the whole Australia.

Gene Tunny  35:01

Maybe limited to the lowest paid workers, rather than have at across all of the wage agreements in the economy so that; fair enough. Okay, we might have to come back to this whole issue of how wages are set in a future episode.

So, what did the BIS conclude about whether major economies are on the verge of a wage price spiral? Well, with most economic issues, they weren’t able to reach a firm conclusion. I mean, none of us has a crystal ball. I mean, I’m always very reluctant to give firm or precise forecast, because you just can’t, because there’s so much uncertainty.

So, my reading of what the BIS was saying in that wage price spiral bulletin, is that, well, they’re not really sure. The key things that they noted in their analysis were that while inflation is returned, it’s reached levels not seen in decades, whether inflation enters a persistently higher regime will depend on labor market developments and on whether a wage price spiral emerges. To date, evidence for a broad acceleration in wage growth is mixed. It’s picked up significantly in the US, but it remains moderate in most other advanced economies. So, it’s certainly still moderate in Australia, it is picking up a bit, but it’s not near what arguably, we’d like to have. And this became an issue in the election campaign to you probably remember this. Well, this is why Albanese made those comments to begin with. Because if you looked at wage’s growth, which was, 2.7 or maybe it was a bit lower through the year, compare it with inflation of 5.1%, then you get a real wage decline of 2.6%.

I will put the exact numbers in the show notes. It must have been about 2½%. If we’ve got a 5.1% inflation rate, I think they were saying the real wage decline was 2.6 or 2.7%, that it must have been a 2½% wage price index increase. I’ll put the right data in the show notes.

That became an issue in the recent election campaign.

Here is where the BIS basically admits; we really don’t know:, Extrapolating behavior from low inflation periods is problematic if inflation remains high, households may ask for higher wages to make up for lost purchasing power and firms may raise prices to protect profit margins. And stubbornly high inflation may lead to institutional changes, such as automatic indexation and cost of living adjustment clauses. So, that’s the sort of thing we want to avoid. And that’s why people were worried about what our current Prime Minister was saying, because there was a concern that we could effectively do that sort of thing, if he followed through on what he was saying.

Did you have any thoughts on that wage price spiral article? You had a looked at that today, didn’t you Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  38:17

Yes. I think, in the report, they also mentioned that some condition must be complied to be under these kinds of wage price spirals. But from my point of view, I think is quite complex to determine if all the countries are going to face that wage price spiral? I think that depends on the particular condition from each country.

Gene Tunny  38:50

Yeah, that’s the problem that the World Bank and the BIS, or the IMF have, because they’re trying to produce forecasts, or do analysis for the whole world or all major economies, whereas there are differences in the institutions within those economies; a very good point.

Okay, so let’s get back to the central question. I mean, all of these things we’ve been talking about, are related to because if we have a wage price spiral, and then we have some shock or the economy goes into a downturn, then we could end up with stagflation. So, it’s all related.

We’ll talk about now, the prospects for stagflation. So, is this something we should be worried about? And it turns out the BIS looked at this last month, so before the World Bank, so this is obviously something that economists in these major institutions are concerned about, and the BIS had to report commodity market disruptions, growth and inflation.

We’ve talked about the broad base supply shock increasing inflation, food and energy prices spilling over to other components of inflation, and possibly; well contributing to a reduction in global economic growth. And we should talk about the World Bank’s forecasts because the World Bank now is forecasting a reduction in global growth, isn’t it? That was one of the major things in that latest report. I’ve got it here.

The bank slashed its annual global growth forecast to 2.9% from January’s 4.1% and said that subdued growth would be likely to persist throughout the decade because of weak investment in most of the world.

And so, the BIS was saying that this is the sort of thing that would happen. It was saying this last month, and I guess, I mean, a lot of other economists have been concerned about that. There’s a recognition that what’s happening with Ukraine, what’s happening with commodity prices, that is going to compromise, global economic growth.

Now, it looks like the BIS; they’re saying similar things to the World Bank and the World Bank, probably. I mean, I’m sure it read what the BIS analysis is pretty much; I think they reach the same conclusions almost. So, let’s go over what the BIS says, and then we’ll compare it with what the World Bank says. So, the BIS has concluded, recent shocks have been smaller than the 1970s oil shocks, but broader based encompassing food and industrial commodities as well as energy. Nonetheless, structural changes, as well as stronger policy frameworks and nominal anchors.

So, by a nominal anchor, they mean, something that’s keeping prices down. They’re talking about inflation targets. So, they make stagflation less likely to return. But this is where they acknowledge that.; we’ve said that, but ultimately, things can happen that derail the economy that can mean our forecast is incorrect. And they know commodity price increases in the wake of the war in Ukraine are likely to weigh on global growth and add to inflation. While lower energy dependence and stronger policy frameworks make a repeat of the 1970s stagflation unlikely, high and volatile commodity prices could still be disruptive. This puts a premium on restoring low inflation quickly before it becomes ingrained in household and corporate decisions.

Absolutely. I think that’s a very good point to make. So, that’s what the BIS said, That’s pretty similar to what the World Bank said, isn’t it?

We might have a look at that now, again. Let me just go back to the media release. They also got a comprehensive report and that chapter, the focus on stagflation, which I’ll link to in the show notes, which is worth reading. I’m just going to consult their media release, which is a really good summary and well written.

Let’s just talk about how the current situation resembles the 70s. And why? What are the reasons why we might think that we could end up with global stagflation?

The current juncture resembles the 1970s in three key aspects: persistence supply, side disturbances, fueling inflation, preceded by a protracted period of highly accommodative monetary policy and major advanced economies, prospects for weakening growth and vulnerabilities in emerging market and developing economies face with respect to the monetary policy tightening that will be needed to rein in inflation.

Let’s have a look at what they’re talking about there. We’ve talked about the persistent supply side disturbances, preceded by a protracted period of highly accommodative monetary policy. By accommodative, we mean, loose, we mean, ultra-low interest rates, we mean lots of money printing, that sort of thing; credit creation, due to the low interest rates. And that’s what we’ve seen in Australia, we’ve seen in the US, we’ve seen it in other advanced economies. So, there’s no doubt about that. And the argument is that buildup of that additional money, that additional liquidity will end up with too much money chasing too few goods, accelerating inflation, right. We’ve talked about that on the show before.

They also talked about vulnerabilities that emerging market and developing economies face with respect to the monetary policy tightening that will be needed to rein in inflation.

So, let’s have a think about what they’re driving out there. I mean, as the western economies increase interest rates, that’s going to mean; this is just one aspect of it. That will attract investment capital, portfolio investment to the US or to other major advanced economies. And if those developing economies don’t put up their interest rates, then that will lead to a depreciation of their exchange rates, which means that the cost of imported goods in those economies will be compromised, or if they’re trying to fix their exchange rates, it puts pressure on their balance of payments. So, it’s a bad situation for those emerging economies.

And also, the thing is, when you have situations like this in the world, when there’s concerns about volatility, there is this flight to safety and money can flow to the advanced economies where there’s a perception, it’s safer, and that could compromise these emerging economies. I wouldn’t be forecasting this yet, but things can happen unexpectedly or rapidly. We know that there can be crises in emerging economies that are difficult to predict, such as the Asian crisis in the late 1990s.

 Any thoughts on any of those key aspects, Arturo? About how, how there are similarities with the 70s?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  46:19

No. Your explanation was very clear.

Gene Tunny  46:23

Okay, well, then we should; before we conclude this episode, we should talk about how the ongoing episode also differs from the 1970s. The dollar is strong, a sharp contrast with a severe weakness in the 1970s, the percentage increases in commodity prices are smaller, and the balance sheets of major financial institutions are generally strong.

More importantly, unlike the 1970s, Central banks in advanced economies, and many developing economies, now have clear mandates for price stability. And over the past three decades, they have established a credible track record of achieving their inflation targets.

And they go on to conclude as the World Bank global inflation is expected to moderate next year, but it will likely remain above; I think I’ve missed the words there, it must be above average.

And they talked about; something’s gone wrong with my printout. They do talk about, you know, there is a risk of stagflation. So, stagflation risk rises amid sharp slowdown in growth, okay, so, there’s going to be some moderation in inflation, but it’s likely to still remain high or higher than the normal. And you couple that with the fact that there’s a risk of a slowdown, and they’re talking about a slowdown in global growth. That’s what they’re forecasting, then, yes, certainly, stagflation of some kind is a risk.

My personal feeling is that; and this is informed by my conversation with Michael Knox last week, I don’t think we’ll end up with stagflation similar to the 70s, or rather, I hope not. I don’t see at the moment. I think the US economy based on the indicators I’ve seen in my conversation with Michael, I think, at least for the next year or so, the prospects for the US economy are very good. Likewise, for Australia, I mean, there are always risks. We’ve got some heavily indebted households; we’ve got interest rates increasing. That’s one of the great unknowns at the moment. But if you look at the indicators, such as job vacancies, you look at the fact we’ve got a 3.9% unemployment rate. You look at what’s happening with commodity prices, which were in net terms benefiting from, because we’re a net exporter of energy and minerals to the world. Like, our coal prices have been $400 – $500 US a ton.

Queensland is a huge producer of coal; and that’s benefiting our state and budget. I mean, there’s ultimately; there may have to be a transition out of coal because of concerns over climate change. But at the moment, it’s something that is beneficial to the state economy. So, I think in Australia, I’m not concerned about stagflation at the moment, but as always, I need to say, I don’t have a crystal ball.

Any thoughts, Arturo? I mean, what’s your general feeling on stagflation? Is this just the latest thing that we’re worried about? Perhaps for no really good reason? I mean, it certainly; I haven’t seen this interest in the concept for a long time. And yes, is it something we should be worried about? What do you think?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  49:35

I think the case is; it’s good to have these discussions and it’s good to know that most of the Central banks are considering these potential, let’s say, this potential event. If they are well prepared, they can avoid that kind of situation for some countries. As I mentioned this thing, if a cure isn’t going to be general, so some countries perhaps are going to face stagflation. In some cases, if they don’t manage properly their monetary policy and some fiscal responses.

But of course, there are many risks that are out there, for example, as the World Bank report mentioned, if the supply disruption proceeds or the commodity prices continue to climb, inflation could remain above Central bank’s target. So, I think those are potential risks, the Central bank must consider giving good response.

Gene Tunny  51:00

Yeah, good point.

One other point I wanted to make is; and this is related to the other thing that differs from the 70s, which is, the World Bank set out a few ways that the economy is not the same as the 70s. And, one of the important ones, I think, is they talk about the US dollar, don’t they, the dollar is strong. Now, this is a very technical issue, it’s a hard one to sort of get your head around, because you have to go back to the situation in the 60s and the early 70s, before the era that we’re now in, in advanced economies of floating exchange rates. When we had the Bretton Woods system.

Michael Knox referred to the growth in international reserves, he talked about the growth of foreign currencies, held by Central banks in the early 70s that just massively increased in the early 70s. Because what was happening were because of the issues in the US and higher budget deficits and concerns about inflation, people around the world were trying to get out of US dollars. And because of the Bretton Woods system, they were trading their US dollars for their own currency or other currencies, or for European currencies, because there was the strong; well, in those that post-war recovery in Europe and Europe was becoming more prominent. And so, there was a move out of US dollars and to buy those US dollars, the Central banks essentially printed money, they created new money.

So, these changes in international reserves that Michael was talking about, I think was like 80%, over from the end of 1972, sometime in 1972. It was a huge growth in these international reserves, that led to a big increase in domestic money supplies, and that fueled inflation.

This is a great article by Robert Heller, that was in one of the IMF journals; might have been finance and development. I put a link to it in the show notes before, I’ll put it again, because it’s just well worth reading. But I think for us to do that justice, we will probably have to come back and talk about Bretton Woods and the whole international financial system pre 1970s. And look, that’s going to be a lot of work.  

This shows the complexity of the issues that we’re dealing with. In the economy, so many moving parts, it’s all interconnected. And yes, but what we’re trying to do, I think on this show is to simplify it as much as possible. And really make sure we understand those mechanisms because in a lot of economic discussion, there’s just too much that’s assumed in terms of the knowledge of the people reading or listening. There are too many concepts explained by reference to other concepts without explaining those concepts. And I want to try to make sure that we’re as clear as possible.

I think we’re probably in a position to wrap this up. Arturo, any final words? Thoughts?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  54:18

I think this conversation was pretty clear. And you’re to understand what is going on globally, in terms of inflation, potentially stagflation problems that some country may face. So, I think let’s stay alert. I think that Central banks are going to react properly in order to address that problem.

Gene Tunny  54:56

Okay, so you said, be alert, I like that. As our Former Prime Minister John Howard once said, Be alert, not alarmed. We will be alert to the prospects for global stagflation. But we’re not going to be alarmed at the moment.

You may not have been in Australia when he said that. That was something that people had amusing. There was about a serious issue is talking about international terrorism, which was, of course, a serious issue. And he said, be alert, but not alarmed. And then that sort of prompted all of these sorts of jokes about, what does that exactly mean to be alert, but not alarmed? I mean, how worried should we be?

And there was the old joke in Australia. Be alert, Australia needs Lurtz. I don’t know if you’ve heard that one. So, I think people would probably; as soon as John Howard said, Be alert, not alarmed. People were instantly sort of thinking, this is a bit of a funny thing to say. But maybe because I remembered that all joke about being alert.

Thank you, Aturo, I really enjoyed that conversation. And if you’re in the audience, and you’re listening, and you’d like to know more about these issues, I’ll put links to everything we chatted about in the show notes. I’ll also make any corrections. If I’ve got anything wrong I discover, in terms of numbers. I generally think the concepts and the facts; I think we got that right. But it’s possible some of the numbers I may have misremembered. So, we’ll put clarifications links in the show notes. And thanks again for listening. Arturo, really appreciate your time today. Thanks so much.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  56:43

Thank you again. Thank you very much.

Gene Tunny  56:46 Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Big thanks to EP143 guest Arturo Espinoza and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to Peter Oke for editing the transcript. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

Nominal GDP targeting w/ Stephen Kirchner – EP135

Market monetarists such as Stephen Kirchner argue nominal GDP targeting would be better than inflation targeting and could help central banks such as the RBA and the US Federal Reserve get back on track. Stephen is Director of the International Economy Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. 

Stephen spoke about nominal GDP targeting with Economics Explored host Gene Tunny in episode 135 of the show, recorded in April 2022. Among other details of nominal GDP targeting, Stephen discussed the potential role of a nominal GDP futures market and for blockchain and Ethereum in such a market and in financial markets more broadly. You can listen to the conversation using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps.

About this episode’s guest – Dr Stephen Kirchner

Dr Stephen Kirchner is Director of the International Economy Program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is also a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute in Canada, where he has contributed to research projects comparing public policies in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Previously, he was an economist with the Australian Financial Markets Association, where he worked on public policy issues relating to the efficient and effective functioning of Australian financial markets and Australia’s position as a regional and international financial centre.

Stephen has been a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Technology Sydney Business School and an economist with Standard & Poor’s Institutional Market Services based in both Sydney and Singapore. He has also worked as an advisor to members of the Australian House of Representatives and Senate.

He has published in leading academic and think-tank journals, including Public Choice, The Australian Economic Review, Australian Journal of Political Science and The Cato Journal.

His op-eds have appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Straits Times, Businessweek, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, and Sydney Morning Herald.

Stephen holds a BA (Hons) from the Australian National University, where he was awarded the L. F. Crisp Prize for Political Science, a Master of Economics (Hons) from Macquarie University, and a PhD in Economics from the University of New South Wales.

Stephen posts regularly on his substack: 

https://stephenkirchner.substack.com/

Links relevant to the conversation

Stephen’s papers on nominal GDP targeting:

Reforming Australian Monetary Policy: How Nominal Income Targeting Can Help Get the Reserve Bank Back on Track

The RBA’s pandemic response and the New Keynesian trap

Transcript of EP135: Nominal GDP targeting w/ Stephen Kirchner

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Stephen Kirchner  00:04

If you want to avoid, you know hitting the zero lower bound or expanding your balance sheet by a significant amount, the way to do that is to respond quickly and aggressively upfront. If you don’t do that, then you fall behind the curve and then monetary policy has to work a lot harder to stabilise the economy.

Gene Tunny  00:23

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of the important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 135 on nominal GDP targeting. My guest this episode is Dr. Stephen Kirchner, who is Director of the International Economy Programme at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia. In this episode, Stephen tells us why nominal GDP targeting would be better than inflation targeting and how central banks such as the Reserve Bank of Australia and the US Federal Reserve can get back on track. Please check out the show notes for relevant links and for details of how you can get in touch with any comments or suggestions. I’d love to hear from you. Righto, now for my conversation with Dr. Steven Kirschner on nominal GDP targeting. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Dr. Steven Kirchner of the US Studies Centre. Welcome to the programme.

Stephen Kirchner  01:36

Thanks for having me, Gene.

Gene Tunny  01:37

It’s a pleasure, Stephen, keen to chat with you about a paper you wrote last year on Reforming Australian Monetary Policy: How Nominal Income Targeting Can Help Get the Reserve Bank Back on Track. So there’s a lot to talk about here. And I think this is of general interest to people in other countries, as well, other than Australia, because this idea of nominal income targeting, it’s been raised in other countries, I know that you’ve appeared on David Beckworth’s podcast, Macro Musings, and I know that David Beckworth is a proponent of this in the United States. So I’d like to ask about, essentially, what is this nominal income targeting compared with how we normally, or how central banks have been running monetary policy? Would you be able to give us an overview of that, please?

Stephen Kirchner  02:38

Sure. I think nominal income targeting is actually not a huge change from where we are at the moment. So most central banks do what they call inflation targeting. And as part of an inflation targeting regime, they’re typically adjusting their monetary policy instrument, usually an official interest rate in response to deviations in inflation from target. But also responding to deviations in output from its full employment, or potential level. And the reason you have output as part of your reaction function is the output gap is predictive of future inflation outcomes. So if you’re running an inflation targeting regime, you want to respond to both deviations inflation from target, and output from potential.

Well, if you think about those two things, inflation on the one hand, and output on the other, if you put those two things together, then you’ve got nominal income, or nominal GDP. So in some respects, nominal GDP targeting or nominal income targeting is just a really weighting of that standard central bank reaction function. So if you think about a Taylor rule, which is just an empirical description of how the interest rate responds to deviations and inflation from target, and output from potential, all nominal GDP targeting is doing is saying you want to put inflation output together and weight them equally in terms of the interest rate response.

Gene Tunny  04:14

Ah, right. Okay. Yeah, that’s a good way of describing it. Yeah, please go on.

Stephen Kirchner  04:18

Yeah, so in that sense, it’s not a huge leap from where we are at the moment. But what it does mean is that the central bank is a bit more agnostic about its response to inflation, and deviations in output from potential. So it’s saying really we want to stabilise both, and the reason you want to stabilise both is if you’re just focusing on inflation, one of the problems you face is not all of the deviations in inflation from target are reflective of aggregate demand shocks. As we know, especially at the moment inflation can deviate from target due to supply shocks. Supply shocks have the effect of lowering output. And so this creates a dilemma for a central bank in how do you respond to a supply-driven inflation shock, or deviation from target. Because if you respond to the deviation in inflation from target and raise interest rates, then that’s going to compound the reduction in output you’d get from a supply shock.

Gene Tunny  05:28

Right. So one example, I’m just thinking, Stephen, is one example of this, did this occur, arguably a policy mistake? Was it 2008 when the European Central Bank put up its policy rate? Not long before the financial crisis? Because there was a supply shock? Or was there an increase in the price of oil? I’m trying to remember, is that one of the examples I give?

Stephen Kirchner  05:55

Well, I think the canonical example here is what happened in the 1970s, when you had very significant increases in oil prices giving rise to higher rates of inflation. And central banks did respond to those oil price shocks through tighter monetary policy. And so there’s an influential paper by Ben Bernanke, Watson and Gertler in 1997, which showed that the propagation of the oil price shock to the US economy was essentially through the monetary policy reaction. And so it was the central bank that actually put the stag into stagflation.

Another example of this would be if you go to September 2008, the FOMC meeting took place a couple of days after the failure of Lehman Brothers. And this was at a time when inflation expectations were collapsing and nominal GDP expectations were collapsing. At that meeting, the FOMC incredibly left the Fed funds rate unchanged, and cited inflation pressures arising from higher oil prices as the reason for keeping monetary policy steady. So this is a very good example of monetary policy being led astray by inflation outcomes that are being driven by supply shocks rather than aggregate demand shocks.

And so what we want is the central bank to respond to inflation pressures to the extent that they’re reflective of aggregate demand shocks, not aggregate supply shocks. And nominal GDP lets you do that without actually having to take a view on what’s driving inflation. So nominal GDP outcomes will tell you the extent to which your inflation issues are being driven by aggregate demand rather than aggregate supply.

Gene Tunny  07:51

Okay, so yeah, a few things to try and explore here. Stephen, inflation targeting. So it’s typically going for something around well, in Australia, it’s 2 to 3%, we’ve got a target band for inflation. And in the US, is it 2%? Or I remember thinking of Bank of England? But the different countries have just slightly different targets.

And what’s fascinating is that when these things were first formulated, we had much higher inflation. And I think no one ever expected we’d be getting consistently, we’d inflation outcomes consistently lower than those targets. And it makes it difficult to think about what’s the appropriate monetary policy response.

I better make sure I understand your argument about why you think the Reserve Bank needs to get back on track. Are you suggesting that the fact that Australia is similar to some other advanced economies, who’ve had inflation outcomes below the target for a substantial amount of time, that would imply that the Reserve Bank, the central bank had scope to expand to have a more expansionary monetary policy which could have pushed the economy closer to full employment? Is that the argument, broadly?

Stephen Kirchner  09:14

Yeah, that’s certainly true of the sort of pre-pandemic period basically, the period in which the RBA was undershooting from approximately 2014 through to the onset of the pandemic and even into the pandemic. So it’s certainly in the last couple of quarters that inflation has returned to target. I mean, I think the specification of the inflation target inevitably is a little bit arbitrary. What matters most is not the exact target range, but the fact that you hit that target more often than not over time and thereby establish your credibility in relation to that target. So ultimately, what you’re trying to do is condition the expectations of price, and wage setters in the economy should be consistent with that target. And so whether it’s a 2% target or 2 to 3% target, it’s less important than the fact that you have one and that you actually stick to it.

But the case for nominal income targeting is to say if you’re only targeting inflation, and this creates a bit of a presentational problem and a sort of implementation problem, which is that what happens in the context of a supply shock when inflation might be above target? How do you explain to people the fact that you’re not hitting your target, even though there’s probably a very good reason why you’d want to look through that supply shock.

If you’re expressing your monetary policy target in terms of nominal GDP, that task becomes a lot simpler, because yes, you may be above target on inflation, but in the context of a supply shock, output is going to be lower. And so you don’t get the same sort of deviation from target under a nominal GDP targeting regime than you would under an inflation targeting regime. Policymakers are less likely to be led astray, because by focusing on nominal GDP, they don’t have this issue of trying to figure out whether inflation outcomes reflect demand shocks or supply shocks.

Gene Tunny  11:23

Okay, so how would this work in practice? So in nominal terms, so by nominal, you’re talking about, we’re not talking about a real GDP measure where we adjust for inflation, we try and get things in consistent dollars, you’re just talking about the total value of the economy, in GDP in nominal terms, so what it is in current dollars, and say that it’s over $2 trillion in Australia annually. And so would the Reserve Bank have a target? They would have an expectation of what that nominal income for Australia should be in 2022, what it should be in 2023. So it should be 2.3 billion by this date or something? Is that Is that how it’s formulated? A trillion I meant, not billion. Sorry,

Stephen Kirchner  12:16

You can’t express it in level terms. So with a nominal GDP target, you can express it both as a growth rate or an implied path for nominal GDP. But I think it’s important to emphasise that, just as with inflation targeting, you don’t target inflation outcomes, necessarily. What you’re targeting is actually the inflation forecast. So what you’re saying is, in future, you’re going to be realising inflation outcomes consistent with target, or with nominal GDP targeting, it’s exactly the same thing. So you want to specify a target path for the future evolution of novel income or novel output. And you want to adjust your monetary policy instruments to be consistent with that target path.

So if in any given quarter, your level of nominal GDP is a little bit above or a little bit below the target path, that’s not necessarily a problem. Again, what you’re trying to do is conditions people’s expectations in relation to what future nominal income will be. And I think that has very useful properties from the point of view of stabilising the economy, because if you think about things like wage and price contracting in the economy, people borrowing and lending, all those activities are conditional on expectations for future normal income. And so if you can stabilise both expectations for that future nominal income path, and by implication, also nominal GDP outcomes, then I think that’s a recipe for macroeconomic stability, more so than if you’re targeting inflation without regard to whether inflation is being driven by demand or supply shocks.

Gene Tunny  14:13

Right. Okay. Might go back to that Taylor rule. So you mentioned the Taylor rule. And you mentioned you can actually think of nominal GDP targeting in a, you call it a reaction function, so how the central bank reacts to the macroeconomic variables. And you said this gives equal weight to deviations of inflation from the target end of real GDP from the target. What does the Taylor rule typically do? Do ou know, what sort of normal parameters there are in that reaction function and what that means?

Stephen Kirchner  14:53

So the Taylor rule was due to John Taylor, who in the early 1990s sat down and said, well empirically, how do we characterise movements in the Fed funds rate. So he regressed the Fed funds rate on various macroeconomic variables. And the empirical description that he came up with for the Feds reaction function was to say, well, the Fed responds to deviations in inflation from target, and had estimated a weight of about 1.5 on that deviation, and also response to deviations and output from potential. And he estimated a weight of .5 on that.

But to sort of round out that empirical description of the Fed funds rate, you also needed an estimate of what the neutral Fed funds rate would be. So in other words, what happens when inflation is a target and output is a potential? What is the Fed funds rate consistent with that? And so that just ends up being a constant regression.

One of the big issues that sort of comes out of that is that’s obviously a historical estimate. What happens if your equilibrium real interest rate changes over time. So you then have the issue of, if you’re responding based on those historical relationships, but the actual equilibrium interest rate changes, and you may end up with monetary policy being miscalibrated. And I think that arguably happens in the United States, and to a certain extent here in recent years, where I think the equilibrium real rate probably fell considerably. And that meant that monetary policy ended up being tighter than central banks intended.

Gene Tunny  16:53

Okay, we might come back to that, I just want to go back to the Taylor rule that you mentioned 1.5. So that means for every percentage point that inflation would be above the target, so if the target’s 2%, and inflation is 3%, the central bank would put up the policy interest rate, the overnight cash rate or the federal funds rate by 1.5 percentage points. And the idea is there that you’re trying to engineer an increase in the real interest rate. So you want to make sure the interest rate increases more than the inflation component of it. Actually, yeah,

Stephen Kirchner  17:41

Yeah, that’s right. So this thing actually has a name, it’s called the Taylor principle. And the Taylor principle says that you want to move your nominal interest rate by more than one for one with the deviation inflation from target, because if you just do a one for one or a less than one point move, then you’re not going to move the real rate, you’re not going to move it in the desired direction. So it has to be a move that is more than the change in inflation. So that’s why you get a parameter estimate of a little bit more than one.

For some central banks, you get higher responses to inflation. So the BOJ, Bank of Japan, the ECB, depending on what sort of model that you look at, sometimes their reactions will be up around two. But yeah, the basic Taylor principle is that you want a response to inflation that is greater than one. But essentially, nominal GDP targeting says that you want to combine inflation and output in the form of nominal GDP, and you want to respond to that.

Gene Tunny  18:46

So I guess one of the points that you make, and I think it is a good point, that to do this Taylor rule properly, you need estimates of these unobservable variables, such as this equilibrium real interest rate. And as you rightly point out, I mean, this is something that… Interest rates are much lower now than we ever expected. You compare historically, it’s quite extraordinary what we’ve seen since the financial crisis in Australia, and the US and UK, and even before then in Japan, since the ‘90s. Absolutely extraordinary.

So I want to make sure I understand the logic again. You mentioned that this means that monetary policy was not as aggressive or as accommodative, or however you describe it, because the equilibrium real interest rate, whatever that is, whether it’s… Say it was 4% and now it’s much lower than that. How does that logically work, Stephen? Can you take us through that logic? I just want to make sure I understand how it would lead a central bank to go astray.

Stephen Kirchner  20:00

Actually, the problem is a bit broader than that. So there are potentially three unobservable variables it would impact. Taylor rule style reaction function, and potentially monetary policy Australia. So one is the real equilibrium interest rate, as we’ve discussed. It’s not directly observable. And it could be higher or lower than we think. But I would say it’s probably been lower than policymakers have thought. In terms of the output gap, then you have the problem that we don’t directly observe potential output either. And so that could be higher or lower than we think. And so policy can be miscalibrated on that basis.

An alternative way of thinking about the output gap is to think in terms of an unemployment gap. So the deviation in unemployment from its full employment level, and this is of course where we get the NAIRU from. So the idea that there’s an unemployment rate that’s consistent with the stable interest rate. And both the Federal Reserve and the RBA have conceded in recent years that the NAIRU has actually been a lot lower than they realised. So they have downwardly revised their estimates of the NAIRU.

And so for much of the post financial crisis period, I think both the Fed and to a lesser extent, the RBA were conditioning monetary policy on a view that the unemployment rate was pretty close to the NAIRU, when in fact, it was probably sitting quite a bit above the NAIRU. And so what that meant was we had monetary policy that was two tight. They could have actually pushed the unemployment rates lower. And done it in a way that would have meant that inflation was more consistent with target as well.

So you can see that the problem with a sort of Taylor rule type approach is that embedded in the Taylor rule, you’ve got at least two unobserved variables.  You’re trying to estimate what those unobservable variables are and condition policy on it. So what nominal income targeting says is well, in fact, you don’t need to take a view on either the equilibrium real rate or the NAIRU or potential output, because nominal GDP in and of itself is a complete description of the stance of monetary policy. And in the long run, nominal GDP is fully determined by the central bank. So the central bank can both influence the long run level of nominal GDP, and the level of nominal GDP tells you whether monetary policy is too easy or too tight at any given time.

You don’t need to do what’s sometimes called navigating by the stars, which is, in macroeconomics, when you write this stuff down in the form of equations, the equilibrium values,  the real interest rate, the NAIRU and potential output, those variables denoted with an asterisk or a star. And so we were first and policy that sort of conditions on those variables as navigating the stars. This is what leads monetary policy astray. It’s the problem that nominal GDP targeting seeks to address

Gene Tunny  23:24

Okay, so by NAIRU, N-A-I-R-U, which stands for non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, such a horrible expression. We use it all the time. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  23:45

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Gene Tunny  24:14

Now back to the show. So how’s this gonna work in practice, Stephen? I’m wondering, and does that mean the main thing the central bank is looking at it in their deliberations, so the board meeting of the Reserve Bank or at the Federal Open Markets Committee, or the Monetary Policy Committee, in the UK, or in the FOMC and in the US, they’re just looking at what the latest data are telling them about GDP, about nominal GDP? They’re trying to forecast that themselves based on a range of indicators, I suppose. Have you thought about how it’s going to work in practice?

Stephen Kirchner  24:55

I think central banks should basically look at all the information that’s available to them in forming a view. So the question is more in terms of what their target is and how they specify that target. And, importantly, also how they describe their policy actions in relation to that target. And so, the purposes of adopting a nominal GDP target, one way to do that is to specify a target path for the future evolution of nominal GDP. So you can do that out a few years in advance. And you would then explain your changes in your operating instrument in terms of an attempt to hit that target path.

So for Australia, for example, it would be a simple matter of rewriting the agreement with the treasurer, what we call a statement on monetary policy, which basically sets out what the RBA is trying to achieve through its conduct of monetary policy. And you would specify that in terms of a path, the future path for nominal GDP.

One of the things I do in my paper for the Mercatus Centre is to estimate an implicit forward-looking nominal GDP targeting rule for the Reserve Bank. So I basically do for the RBA, what John Taylor did for the fed back in the early 1990s, and say, How would an empirical description is nominal GDP targeting of how the RBA has actually changed the cash rate in the past?

And as it turns out, it’s actually not a bad empirical model of what they’ve been doing historically, because even if you’re thinking of monetary policy material type framework, you know, you’re still trying to stabilise nominal GDP. You’re just putting different weights on those two components of inflation output. But if you think of monetary policy as just responding to the nominal GDP, well, to some extent, the RBA is already doing that. Where I think nominal GDP targeting is helpful is, at the margin, I think it would lead to better monetary policy decisions, for the reasons that we’ve already talked about that. At the margin, they would be focusing more squarely on nominal demand shocks and looking through supply shocks, which I think is where monetary policy has run off track in the past.

Gene Tunny  27:34

Okay, so I want to ask about the RBA. So you want to get the RBA back on track. And one of the areas or one way you think that it’s off track is that over the last decade or so, or maybe over the last five years, or maybe a bit longer than that, it’s paid too much attention. Am I getting this right? You think it’s paid too much attention to financial stability risks, and this is called leaning against the wind? I think it’s denied that it actually does lean against the wind. Is this one of your criticisms of it, Stephen? And if so, what’s wrong with taking financial stability risks into account when setting monetary policy?

Stephen Kirchner  28:15

So there’s a long running debate about the role of financial stability, inflation targeting framework, and to what extent you should take financial stability concerns into account when doing inflation targeting. And one conception of this is to say that if you are doing inflation targeting, and you’re underpinning nominal stability in the economy, that this in itself is conducive to financial stability. And so, you want to prioritise nominal stability and that is the way you get financial stability.

And to the extent that financial instability becomes a problem, then monetary policy can always address that ex post. So the way the debate is sometimes characterised is between leaners and cleaners. So if your reaction to financial instability is ex post, then you’re cleaning up after you get a financial stability problem. If you’re a leaner, then you’re trying to sort of anticipate those financial instability problems. And to that extent, you’re going to potentially sacrifice your inflation target in order to head off some of those concerns.

So central banks will always obviously have to respond to financial instability after the fact to the extent that it creates problems for the macro economy. The real question is, to what extent do you try to do that preemptively. And I would argue that we don’t have enough information about financial stability risks to really do that successfully, preemptively. And traditionally, that was kind of the view that the RBA took. So if you look at the 2010 statement on monetary policy agreed between the treasurer and the RBA governor, that statement was the first to incorporate financial stability as a consideration. So it was the first statement after the financial crisis. And so it’s no surprise that that statement took on financial stability concerns.

And in that 2010 statement, it says very explicitly that, yes, the Reserve Bank should take account of financial stability, but without compromising the price stability objective. So financial stability concerns were made explicitly subordinate to price stability. And so that reflects the view I talked about before where you view nominal stability as being the most conducive way to address financial stability risks. So that would be the way that I would tend to formulate that relationship between price stability and financial stability.

What happened when Philip Lowe became governor in 2016 is there was a change in the wording on the statement on the conduct of monetary policy, which essentially turned that relationship on its head. So that statement explicitly provided for short-term deviations in inflation from target in order to address financial stability risks. So that agreement was essentially saying that there may be times when in the short run, we’re going to allow inflation to deviate from target in order to address financial stability concerns. And those concerns were explicitly nominated as a reason why you might look at the inflation target.

Gene Tunny  31:51

They might accept lower than the target inflation, because they don’t want monetary policy so stimulatory that it means that there’s a big growth in housing credit and house prices. Is one of the criticisms of what the RBA is doing now. I mean, I’m interested in your views on what it’s done during the pandemic, because we’ve had very aggressive monetary policy response. And this has arguably contributed to the boom in housing credit and house prices where we’ve got double digit, we’ve had house prices increase by over 20% In some cities. And I mean, to me, I mean, it looks like monetary policy has been too aggressive during this period. But yeah, I’m interested in your view on that, Stephen. And I mean, how does what they’ve done, how do you assess that given you’re an advocate of this nominal income targeting? How compatible is what they’ve done with that, please?

Stephen Kirchner  32:58

So if you look at the period from 2016, through to the onset of the pandemic, that changed, and the wording of the statement in the conduct of monetary policy ended up then being a very good description of monetary policy under Governor Lowe. So, through that period, the RBA very explicitly traded off concerns around, in particular the household debt-to-income ratio, and said, Well, the reason why we’re letting inflation run below target is we’re worried that if we provide more stimulatory monetary policy settings, then that would trigger more household borrowing, and potentially create risks in in the housing market. And the concern was that by the household sector taking on increased leverage, that this would increase the household sector’s exposure to a shock. So essentially, you’re trying to fight the last war in terms of the 2008 financial crisis. They were trying to mitigate what they saw as the risks that led to that particular event.

Now, one of the criticisms of leaning against the wind, I think, and this is a criticism that’s been made very persuasively, I think, by Lars Svensson, Swedish economist, is to say, well, if you’re conducting monetary policy on the basis of an apprehended financial stability, its annual trading off inflation and output against those risks, then in a sense, what you’re doing is you’re setting yourself up to have a weaker starting point if and when a financial crisis does occur. So the starting point for the economy is actually going to be weaker because you’ve been running monetary policy, it’s been too tight. And so this is a mistake that the Swedish central bank made In the early 2010s, and which led Lars to sort of formally model leaning against the wind and coming up with that characterization.

Peter Tulip who was a former Reserve Bank economists, when he was at the bank. He also did some work, basically applying Svensson’s framework to Australia and showing that in terms of the trade-off between the central bank’s objectives and financial stability risks, the RBA was basically incurring costs anywhere from three to eight times the benefit in terms of mitigating financial stability risks. So the cost in terms of having unemployment, for example, higher than would have been otherwise, you know, more than offset any gain in terms of reducing financial stability risk.

So essentially, I think this is a hierarchy in knowledge problem that the central bank really does not have enough knowledge about the economy to be able to successfully lean against the wind. This explains why the RBA undershot its inflation target for the better part of seven years. And it was an explicit policy choice, you know. This wasn’t an accident.

Going into the pandemic, I would say that the initial monetary policy response was inadequate. And this was essentially a function of the RBA trying to conduct monetary policy within its traditional operating framework. So they were still trying to use the cash rate as their main operating instrument, even though the cash rate was constrained by the zero lower bound on a nominal interest rates.

Gene Tunny  36:43

So we had a cash rate of, was it .25% going into the pandemic?

Stephen Kirchner  36:49

Going into the pandemic, it was point .75.

Gene Tunny  36:52

Oh, right. Yeah, sorry.

Stephen Kirchner  36:54

In March of 2020 they lowered it by 50 basis points in 2 increments of .25. And that took it down to a quarter of a point, which they argued at the time was an effective lower bound inasmuch as the RBA operates a corridor system around that target cash rate. And so the bottom of the corridor would have normally been at zero, if they had maintained that system. Subsequently, of course, the RBA did lower the cash rate below .25. So it turned out that it wasn’t a lower bound after all. It was very much a self-imposed constraint.

But going into the pandemic, they tried to conduct monetary policy very much within that conventional operating framework with the cash rate as the main operating instrument. And I think, because they allowed the level of the cash rate to determine how much stimulus they would provide… And initially, monetary policy was way too tight. So even though they had lowered the cash rate, what we saw between March 2020 and November 2020, when they finally adopted QE, was that the Australian dollar appreciated significantly. So the Australian dollar outperformed all of the other G10 currencies over that period. The appreciation on the trade-weighted index was about 10%.

And so what this is telling you is that in relative terms, we were not doing nearly as much as other central banks. And we were paying a penalty for that on the exchange rate. The other element of this, of course, was the macroeconomic policy mix, so the relative weight on monetary and fiscal policy. So our fiscal policy response was one of the strongest in the world. But our monetary policy response wasn’t.

Gene Tunny 38:52

Initially, yeah, gotcha.

Stephen Kirchner 38:54

At least up until November 2020. And so this is a recipe for the open economy crowding out effects that you discussed with Alex Robson, when you talked about Tony Makin’s work on open economy crowding out. So if you have a fiscal policy response, if you’re overweighting on fiscal policy relative to monetary policy, you’ll pay a penalty for that exchange rate. And that’s exactly what happened. And that was a pretty strong indication that monetary policy of this period was too tight. The RBA could have done more but didn’t because it was trying to conduct policy within its traditional operating framework.

Gene Tunny  39:33

Right, and by more you mean quantitative easing or large scale asset purchases, creating new money, printing money electronically and then using it to buy financial securities bonds, for example?

Stephen Kirchner  39:48

Yeah, so there are two alternative operating frameworks that they could have used. One is negative interest rates and the other is large scale asset purchases or QE. And so by November 2020, the RBA conceded that other central banks had done more to expand their balance sheet. And they needed to do the same. They also lowered the cash rate target from .25 to .1. And they lowered the bottom of the cash rate corridor from one to zero. So effectively, they conceded that they could have done more and needed to do more, and they finally delivered. And at that time, they did adopt a very aggressive asset purchase programme because they were playing catch up to other central banks. And so by the time we’ve got to the end of 2021, in fact, the RBA had expanded its balance sheet as a share of GDP by an amount that was broadly equivalent to what the Fed had done.

So one of the ironies here is that the RBA’s attempt not to expand its balance sheet actually ended up being a balance sheet expansion that was comparable to that of the Fed. And I think this is an important lesson for monetary policy generally, that typically, if central bank is using its policy instruments aggressively, and over a very extended period of time, that’s usually an indication that it didn’t do enough upfront. So in fact, if you want to avoid, you know, hitting the zero lower bound or expanding your balance sheet by a significant amount, the way to do that is to respond quickly and aggressively upfront. If you don’t do that, then you fall behind the curve, and then monetary policy has to work a lot harder to stabilise the economy. And I think that’s what ended up happening in Australia in response to the pandemic.

Gene Tunny  41:42

Right, okay. You’ve written another fascinating paper on this, Stephen. The paper’s titled The Reserve Bank of Australia’s Pandemic Response and the New Keynesian Trap. So this was published in Agenda, which is a journal put out by the Australian National University. And I want to ask you what you mean by New Keynesian trap. But I think I sort of know, I think you’re sort of alluding to the fact that a new Keynesian policy approach would be inflation targeting, but you can correct me on that. But the point you make, and I think this is fascinating, you want to explore this and make sure I understand what you mean here, you write, “A monetarist conception of the monetary transmission mechanism would have encouraged more rapid adoption of alternative operating instruments.” So could you explain what you mean there, please?

Stephen Kirchner  42:33

Yeah, so the New Keynesian trap was exactly what I was describing in terms of the monetary policy response to the pandemic. The New Keynesian framework for monetary policy analysis relies excessively on an official interest rate as not just the central bank’s only operating instrument, but also the only way that you get monetary policy into that model. And the problem with this is that if the central bank thinks of monetary policy implementation and monetary policy transmission exclusively in terms of an official interest rate, then that’s going to be a problem when your official interest rate hits the lower bound, because at that point, your model basically blows up, because if you can’t lower the nominal interest rate, in a situation which is calling for easy monetary policy, then that’s a recipe for macroeconomic instability. And in fact, it becomes a downward spiral because the economy deteriorates and you can’t respond through your conventional monetary policy instrument.

And in the sort of New Keynesian literature on monetary policy, there are all sorts of ways in which they try and sort of solve this problem. So in some of that literature, for example, there’s just an assumption that  fiscal policy steps in to bail out the central bank. And to some extent, that’s what we saw with the pandemic response, which was that you might have noticed during the early stages of the pandemic, the Reserve Bank Governor was begging the federal and state governments to do even more with fiscal policy than they were actually doing, even though the fiscal policy response is quite large. And so really what he was saying was, my hands are tied, you need to do more to stabilise the economy.

Now, were the central bank’s hands tied by its operating framework? Well, only in the sense that they perceive that framework to be binding on their decision making. If you go back to November 2019. Governor Lowe gave a speech in which he addressed the issue of negative interest rates and quantitative easing. And he was arguing that it was very unlikely that the central bank would have to go there. And if you read that speech, you can see he’s very reluctant to contemplate using either of those policy instruments. So for me, the New Keynesian trap, it’s a self-imposed constraint on monetary policy. It’s because of the way you’re conceiving both the monetary policy instrument and the monetary policy transmission mechanism, it leads you to pull your punches in an environment where you need to adopt a new operating frame.

And for me, the fact that the RBA walked away from that framework in November of 2020 basically concedes the point, they realised that their traditional operating framework was not adequate in responding to a massive shock when the interest rate was hitting the zero bound, and so they needed to think of monetary policy in an alternative framework. And so this is where an RBA officials started giving speeches about the role of quantitative policy instruments and quantitative transmission mechanisms in the monetary policy implementation. If they had done that back in March of 2020, I think we would have had a more timely, more effective monetary policy response and avoided what I’ve called the New Keynesian trap.

Gene Tunny  46:22

Yeah, yeah. Okay. I mean, I think you’ve been rightly critical of the RBA. If they eventually had to adopt these measures, and arguably, they should have done them earlier. So very good point. I want to make sure I understand why it’s a monetarist conception, why that would have led to more rapid adoption. Is that because a monetarist would have been looking at the monetary aggregates, they would have been thinking about, well, how, how could we make the monetary aggregates grow at the rate that would be optimal? Is that what you’re thinking? And you’re just not thinking in terms of a cash rate? You’re thinking in terms of the money supply?

Stephen Kirchner  47:03

Monetarists have always been very critical of the idea that an official interest rate is both the best characterization of what monetary policy is doing, but also the idea that it’s a complete representation of the role that monetary policy plays in the economy. So it’s true that, you know, in equilibrium, you could say that an official interest rate might be a good representation of the contribution of monetary policy.

The way monetarists tend to think of the long run evolution of the price level is in terms of the long run supply and demand for real money balances. And so they tend to think of the evolution of monetary policy in a quantity framework rather than a price framework, the price being the interest rate. So you can think of monetary policy instruments either working through a price, which is the interest rate, or quantity, which is the supply and demand of real money balances. I think both modes of analysis have their place, and they’ve clearly linked. But the focus on official interest rates, I think has been very misleading, because you know, of itself, the level of the cash rate, tells you very little about the stance of monetary policy.

I think one of the mistakes monetary policymakers have made internationally and in Australia has been to assume that because the nominal cash rate is low, monetary policy must be stimulatory. And one of the points that Milton Friedman made repeatedly was to say, if the nominal interest rate is low, then that’s probably indicative of tight monetary policy because that probably means that inflation is very low as well, if you think of the contribution that inflation makes to the nominal interest rate. So if you’ve got very low nominal interest rates, that’s probably an indication that monetary conditions are too tight, rather than too easy. And I think it’s a mistake that monetary policymakers have repeatedly made.

Milton Friedman warned against it in his 1968 presidential address to the American Economics Association. And throughout his life, he tried to impress upon policymakers the significance of this. But it’s something that’s still eludes policymakers, I think, and you can see it in some of the comments that the RBA and Governor Lowe has made in recent years where they often emphasise the low level of the cash rate as being self-evidently indicative of an easy monetary policy stance when, in fact, if anything, it’s probably an indication that monetary policy is too tight.

By the same token, if you go back to say, the late 1980s, in Australia, when we had double digit inflation rates, well, we had double digit interest rates as well. At that time, very high level of interest rates was in fact indicative of the fact that the RBA had run monetary policy in a way that was way too easy, giving us high inflation.

Gene Tunny  50:34

Yeah. And it was that experience that did prompt the adoption of inflation targeting because we weren’t inflation targeting back then. They had some checklist approach or whatever. This was just after they had the brief experiment with monetarism, and then they had a checklist or something and they didn’t have an explicit inflation target until the early ‘90s. I mean, Stephen, would you agree that arguably, inflation targeting was a good thing to adopt at the time? I mean, did it actually improve? Do we get better monetary policy for a while with inflation targeting? Was it better than what we had before?

Stephen Kirchner  51:09

I think inflation targeting was a very important and helpful innovation. They’ve got central banks focused on nominal stability, which is what you want them to do. And I mean, I’m still a defender of inflation targeting as much as I think you could make the current inflation targeting framework work better. And the way in which you would do that would be to focus on as you’re looking through supply shocks, so in other words, not responding to increases in inflation that are clearly driven by supply side constraints, like some of the inflation pressures that we’re seeing at the moment. Where nominal income targeting is helpful I think is helping you to do that.

So one way of thinking about nominal income targeting is you could think of nominal income as an indicator variable or an inflation variable, which tells you when you need to respond to inflation with monetary policy and when you shouldn’t. So that would be one way in which you could improve an inflation targeting regimen would be to sort of look at both variables and use that to help you sift through what inflation shocks you want to respond to, what inflation shocks you want to look through. I don’t think we have to necessarily give up on inflation targeting but we probably do need to change the way we do it, because I think inflation targeting in recent years has failed on its own terms, because central banks have said, well, we’re targeting inflation, but in fact, they’ve missed the target. So if you’re missing the target, you’re not doing it properly. So clearly, you need to change the way you’re doing it.

Gene Tunny  52:49

So as an implication of what you’ve said, are you implying that there’s a risk of the Reserve Bank could increase the cash rate too much, because it’s reacting to CPI data that partly, the inflation is going to be driven by this supply shock? Is that a concern of yours?

Stephen Kirchner  53:12

Yeah, I mean, we’ve certainly seen that in the past. So we talked before about the Fed, and the ECB in 2008 I think clearly made that error. And I think it’s a risk at the moment. At the moment, we have both supply and demand shocks driving inflation. So there’s been a huge dislocation in the supply side of the global economy due to shifts in demand, so that the speed of the recovery has basically caught the supply side of the world economy short. It’s struggling to keep up. And so there’s a big supply component to existing inflation pressures.

In the United States, I’d say there’s also a demand component inasmuch as one of the things that Mercatus Centre has done has been to develop what they call an NGDP gap, which is basically a measure of the deviation in nominal GDP from long-run expectations. At the moment, we have a positive nominal GDP gap in the United States. And so consistent with the nominal GDP targeting framework, that’s saying that there are excess demand pressures in the US economy. And so you would want monetary policy to respond to that. And so I think this is why the Fed is tightening at the moment. It’s appropriate that they do so because there is excess demand in the US economy, and GDP expectations are a good guide. But at the same time, there’s a very significant supply side component to this. And that is something you probably want to look through.

So one way to think about US monetary policy at the moment is the Feds should be tightening with the views of closing that nominal GDP expectations gap on the Mercatus measure. That would require some tightening of monetary policy but not nearly as aggressive as if you were trying to fully stabilise consumer price inflation.

Gene Tunny  55:13

Right. So nominal GDP in the US by that Mercatus measure, it’s higher than that path that long-run path. Is that right?

Stephen Kirchner  55:25

Yeah, that’s right. So on their measure, the level of nominal GDP is running at about, I think, 3% above the path implied by long-run expectations for nominal income. So from a nominal GDP targeting framework, you would certainly want to respond to that.

Gene Tunny  55:41

Right. Now, this is one thing I’ll want to just make sure I understand. In your paper, you talk about how it’s good to correct for deviations from that target path, that nominal path. Why does a target path in nominal terms? Why is that relevant? I think one of the points you make is that, traditionally, central bankers wouldn’t really worry about the nominal path, or they if you did have low inflation for a period, and that meant that you were below that nominal level, it’s not as if you’re going to ramp up, they wouldn’t have a more stimulatory monetary policy just to try and hit a particular GDP number in nominal terms, say two and a half trillion or something, because well, what does the actual nominal value of it matter? What matters is what’s the real value of it and how many people are employed, that sort of thing? I want to understand that. Are you saying that we should try and get back to some sort of the nominal GDP number that was implied by the path we’re on?

Stephen Kirchner  56:54

Yeah, I would say that nominal GDP stabilisation is still implicit in what the RBA and the Fed do today. So if you’re stabilising inflation around target and output around potential, then that will certainly be conducive to stability in nominal GDP. It’s just that we’re not explicitly framing monetary policy in those terms. So at the moment, we frame it in terms of the cash rate responding to deviations in the inflation target, or deviations in output or the unemployment rate from their assumed equilibrium values. All I’m saying is you want to reframe the way in which you implement monetary policy in terms that are currently implicit, but arguably should be explicit.

So really, I’d say monetary policy is trying to stabilise a path for the future path of nominal GDP. Were just not explicit about it. So it’s really reframing monetary policy in those terms, to bring out those relationships. But I think it does it in a way that’s less conducive to monetary policy running off track, for all the reasons that we’ve talked about, that you’re no longer making guesses about the equilibrium interest rate, the equilibrium unemployment rate, or the equilibrium level of real output. You can abstract from all of those things and just ask the question, How is nominal GDP evolving relative to, A, expectations, or B, in my sort of operating framework, you know, where you want monetary policy to be. So just be explicit about that and nominate a target path.

One of the advantages of doing that is in fact, I think, better financial stability outcomes, reason being if you think about the decisions that lenders and borrowers are taking in credit markets, whether it be in relation to housing or business lending or any other type of credit, the serviceability of those contracts depends entirely on the future flow of nominal income. So putting yourself in the shoes of a holder of a mortgage, for example. The amount I borrow is very much a function of what I think my future nominal income is going to be. And the lender is making the same assessment, right? They’re saying, Does this person have the capacity to service a mortgage? Well, that’s a function of what’s going to happen with their normal income in the future.

So by stabilising both expectations for nominal income and actual outcomes for nominal income, I think that’s conducive to financial stability because then the economy is going to evolve in line with the expectations embedded in those credit contracts. So I think you’re less likely to run into financial stability concerns in that context.

So this is essentially Scott Sumner’s critique of US monetary policy in response to the global financial crisis. So what Scott Sumner argues is that the recession in the United States was made deeper by the fact that nominal GDP and expectations for nominal GDP in the early stages of the crisis were allowed to collapse, and that more than anything affected the ability of people to service their mortgages.

Gene Tunny  1:00:42

That’s an interesting argument. I’ll have to have a look back over his work. I’ve seen it in the past. But have you got time for two more questions or do you have to get going? Because there are a couple –

Stephen Kirchner  1:00:52

Oh no, absolutely. Take all the time in the world.

Gene Tunny  1:00:55

Great. There are a couple other things I want to chat about. On page 27 of your Mercatus Centre paper you write, “There’s a growing empirical literature on the advantages of NGDP targeting relative to inflation targeting and other policy rules. I’m interested what that literature is. What does it comprise of? Is it cross-country regression studies, or how do they determine that, that this actually is superior to what we’re doing at the moment?

Stephen Kirchner  1:01:23

So there’s a long history is who the literature on monetary policy rules. And it really goes back to a Brookings Institution project back in the early 1990s. And it was as part of that project that John Taylor published his Taylor rule estimates. And Warwick McKibbin, the Australian economist, was actually an early contributor to that literature as well. And I mean, one of the things I did, as part of that Brookings Institution project was to just simulate different types of rules. So on one hand, you can estimate empirically what the central bank response to macro variables is . But you can also do simulations, where you say, well, what would happen in a economic model if the central bank responded to nominal GDP or some other specification of the monetary policy reaction function.

And I think it’s fair to say that, in that early literature, both nominal GDP targeting, whether in level or growth rate terms, did not fare well, relative to the sort of more Taylor rule type specification. The problem with that literature was that it wasn’t taking account of the knowledge problems that we talked about earlier, which is the unobservability of some of the key conditioning variables, namely the real equilibrium interest rate, either potential output or an estimate of an error. Once you take account of those knowledge problems, then the Taylor rule literature becomes much less robust. And nominal GDP targeting becomes much more robust. So once you allow for the fact that there’s uncertainty around those assumed equilibrium values, then inflation targeting as it’s currently conducted in a Taylor rule framework looks a lot less attractive. So really, that early literature was conditioning on historical relationships, which, when you’re operating in real time, become much more problematic.

Gene Tunny  1:03:53

Okay. I have to ask you about an NGDP futures market. So this was mentioned in your Mercatus Centre paper. Why would that be useful? And what’s the role of Ethereum, so a cryptocurrency, isn’t it? What’s the role of Ethereum in that?

Stephen Kirchner  1:04:15

So if you’re targeting nominal GDP, then one of the things that would be very helpful in that context would actually be a market-based estimate of where nominal GDP is going. People like myself who call themselves market monetarists, the market part of that expression refers to the fact that we think that markets are in fact the best gauge, financial markets at the best gauge of the stance of monetary policy and also what effect any given policy change is likely to have on the economy.

So if you take that view, then what you want to do is get a market-derived estimate of where nominal GDP is going and then base your monetary policy response on that estimate, because that’s going to be your best guess of where nominal GDP is going. And there are various versions of this. Scott Sumner has a version where the central bank would actually tie its open market operations mechanically to prices in that nominal GDP market. So monetary policy would then basically become market-driven. But you don’t need to go quite that far. I mean, it would be sufficient, I think, just for the central bank to take account of what the nominal GDP market was telling you about the stance of monetary policy.

The beauty of this is that any macroeconomic policy measure that you might implement, the nominal GDP futures market will give you instant and real time information on what the market thought that was going to do to the economy. So for example, if you had a fiscal stimulus package, a nominal GDP futures market would tell you basically on announcement, what it thought the impact of that package would be. And my expectation would be that if we had a nominal GDP futures market and you announced a big fiscal stimulus, we would actually probably see very little movement in the nominal GDP futures market because most of the economy crowding out effects that we discussed before, I suspect that in a small open economy with a floating exchange rate like Australia, fiscal policy actually doesn’t do very much in terms of aggregate demand.

Gene Tunny  1:06:45

Right.

Stephen Kirchner  1:06:46

We see that a little bit already, because although we don’t get sort of very clean or discreet announcements of fiscal policy measures, typically when the budget lands every year, and they announce what the change in the budget balance the share of GDP is going to be, which is your sort of best measure of the impact that fiscal policy is going to have on the economy. The national markets very rarely move in response to that announcement.

So the case for a nominal GDP futures market is you want that market to basically inform monetary policy decision making. And it really goes to the issue of what paradigm do you want for monetary policy? The market monetarist paradigm is essentially to say central bank is a lot smarter than financial markets when it comes to assessing where the economy is going. And we should do away with the fiction that they know more than what’s embodied in financial crises. And so conduct monetary policy on the basis of the best available information, which is what financial markets are telling you about the evolution of the economy,

Gene Tunny  1:08:01

What does this instrument look like? And who sets up the market? Does the central bank set up the market? I mean, people are gambling, or they’re betting on what future nominal GDP is. But how’s the market actually work? Has anyone thought about how it would be designed? Does the central bank have to run out or could it be a privately owned market?

Stephen Kirchner  1:08:26

So this could be a conventional futures markets? So we have at the moment futures contracts available, various financial instruments, so there are futures contracts for 10-year bond yields for the Australian dollar. We effectively have futures contracts on inflation outcomes, which is the difference between the prices on bond yields and index bond yields, so that it’s bond yields adjusted for inflation. So we actually already effectively have a futures market in inflation outcomes. And that’s actually a very important input into monetary policy decision making.

So one of the things that the RBA pays very close attention to is what market prices are saying about the future evolution of inflation? So we already have one half of the equation. What we need is the other half, which is to say, a view on what’s going to happen with real output. But if we combine those two things, and what we’re saying is we want a financial market view on where nominal GDP has gotten. So it’s very straightforward to design a futures market contract that you would list on the Australian Stock Exchange, which would be traded by financial market participants.

And I think another thing that would be useful that comes out of this is it would be a very good hedging instrument. So we think of corporations, their top line revenues are in fact often largely a function of nominal GDP. So one of the things the company will look at when they’re forecasting their revenues is an assumption about what nominal GDP is going to do. So corporates could actually use a nominal GDP futures market as a hedging instrument. And that increases the information content of NGDP futures prices. It becomes highly informative of what decision makers in the economy are expecting in relation to the future evolution of nominal income. That information is very useful for policymaking.

And my argument to the Reserve Bank, when I’ve presented this work to them, is to say, Do you think that would be useful input into monetary policy decision making? And of course, the answer has to be yes. You know, you want more information, not less. And so my argument to them is, well, if that information will be useful, then it’s probably worth incurring some costs in order to get that information. So what I’ve suggested is they need to remove some of the regulatory barriers to the creation of a nominal GDP futures market.

A huge regulatory barrier to any sort of financial innovation in Australia is the fact that the costs of financial system regulation in Australia are paid for by the financial sector. So all of the costs of ASIC and APRA in regulating the Australian financial system is recovered from market participants, economic institutions. But that cost recovery framework has a public interest clause, which basically says you should be able to get relief from cost recovery if there’s a public interest in doing so. And so I like it that the creation of a nominal GDP futures market is a perfect application of the public interest case for relief from cost recovery. So basically, the institutions and the Securities Exchanges that would put together that market should basically get an exemption from regulatory cost recovery. I think that would give a huge boost to making that sort of market commercially viable.

Gene Tunny  1:12:37

It’s a fascinating idea, because occasionally, you do have these new financial instruments. I mean, I know in the US they have a market in… Is there a futures market for house prices based on the Case-Shiller Index?

Stephen Kirchner  1:12:51

Yeah, that’s right. There’s derivatives around house prices in the United States. The NSX tried to get a derivatives market in house prices up and running a few years ago. I would argue that, yes, we should have house price futures as well, for exactly the same reasons. It’s informative for policymakers, t gives them information that they would not otherwise have. It will tell you, for example, when APRA changes its regulation of financial institutions. A house price futures market would tell you straightaway what the implications for that are for house prices. It’d be useful hedging instrument as well. So yeah, ideally, I think we should have both markets.

I think the impediments to those markets, given that they are potentially so useful, are most likely regulatory in nature. And so we need to lower the regulatory barriers to the creation of those markets. And arguably, I think there’s a case for implicit public subsidies for those markets as well, so relief from regulatory cost recovery. I think the RBA could use its balance sheet to become a market maker in those markets. So not with a view to influencing the prices, but just providing, being a liquidity provider, which would lower costs for other people transacting in those markets and would help get them up and running.

Gene Tunny  1:14:25

I was just thinking, I was just trying to think, how would this actually start up? And, I mean, you’d need someone to actually develop the instruments, create the contracts and sell them, so that could be say, an investment bank, for example. It could be a Goldman Sachs or it could be a Morgan Stanley or one of those businesses. It’s a fascinating idea.

Stephen Kirchner  1:14:50

Yeah, I mean, in my Mercatus paper, I make the case that the council of financial regulators should jointly mandate the creation of a nominal GDP futures market. And I mean, when regulators mandate something in financial markets, it usually happens. So it’s not uncommon for the financial regulators to actually come out and say to financial market participants, okay, we’re doing this. If it becomes a regulatory mandate, then the financial market participants will cooperate with that mandate. And you know, I think it would be enthusiastic participants. So I think it’s really incumbent upon the RBA to say this is something that we want and need, would be helpful for policymaking and for hedging, as I’ve described. And so we’re going to sit down with financial market participants and make it happen

Gene Tunny  1:15:46

And just finally, you’ve mentioned that there could be a role for blockchain. So you talk about how US NGDP futures have already been implemented on the Augur blockchain. Did I pronounce that right? And then, Eric Falkenstein has also developed Ethereum-based derivatives contracts. These contracts could provide competitive alternatives to listed securities, okay, on existing exchanges and require little or no public support while still yielding useful information about monetary policy in the economy. So is there anything special about the blockchain in this context?

Stephen Kirchner  1:16:22

Well, the role for blockchain I think is just in terms of lowering the costs of doing it. So as we’ve already discussed, there are significant cost barriers to listing nominal GDP futures on our traditional securities exchange. I’ve argued that we should try and lower some of those costs. But another way of doing this is to implement it in blockchain space. There’s already been some interest in doing this in the US. I think, eventually, almost all financial derivatives will move off exchanges and onto the blockchain at some point, main reason being you can then do instantaneous clearing and settlement. So you no longer have trillions of dollars tied up in collateralizing clearing and settlement of financial derivatives. So if derivatives markets are going to move onto blockchain, then arguably NGDP futures should move on to blockchain as well. But I think there’s more scope for innovation in the blockchain space at the moment, just because it’s a different regulatory environment.

And so I’ve sort of argued for a two-prong approach where on the one hand, you want to go through sort of the conventional channel other listed securities market for NGDP futures. But at the same time, I think there’s scope for entrepreneurs to innovate in the blockchain space and do something similar. And hopefully, what we get out of this is a viable future market, not just in nominal GDP, but [with] other macro variables included. And I think it would not only provide policymakers with useful information, but it would really change the way people think about financial markets and monetary policy, because you can’t beat the sort of real-time financial market verdicts on what policy is doing.

It would eliminate a lot of arguments about the implications of various types of public policy, because let’s say the government is proposing a change in some tax rate, and there’s an argument about what the implications of that tax change is for the economy. Well, a nominal GDP futures market will instantaneously settle that argument, because when the tax change is announced, you can observe what the change in the nominal GDP futures is. And that basically tells you what the economic impact is,

Gene Tunny  1:19:07

Assuming the market expectation is correct.

Stephen Kirchner  1:19:11

It doesn’t have to be correct. It’s probably our best guess.

Gene Tunny  1:19:15

Best guess, gotcha. Yeah. I agree. I was just wanting to –

Stephen Kirchner  1:19:19

Ex post it could be completely wrong. At the time of the announcement, it would be the best guess of everyone who actually has a real-time financial stake in that outcome.

Gene Tunny  1:19:31

Yeah, very good point. Okay, Stephen, this has been terrific. I’ve learned so much and it’s made me think about a lot of a lot of things that hadn’t been thinking about before. I love this idea of futures markets in economic indicators. I think that’s brilliant. So yes, I’ll have to come back and explore that in the future. So Stephen, you’ve got a sub stack, which I’ll put a link to in the show notes. I’ll also put links to your two fascinating papers on monetary policy. Any final words before we wrap up?

Stephen Kirchner  1:20:06

I think this has been a great conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it, Gene.

Gene Tunny  1:20:09

Thank you, Stephen. I’ve really enjoyed it too. I must admit, initially I don’t think I’ve really understood this nominal income targeting idea and its merits and what the problems with inflation targeting were as much as I do now, I think I’ve got a much better understanding. So absolutely, really appreciate that. So, again, thanks so much for coming on to the programme. And yeah, hopefully, I have you on again, sometime in the future. We could chat more about these issues. So thanks so much.

Stephen Kirchner  1:20:46

Thank you, Gene. It’s been a pleasure.

Gene Tunny  1:20:49 Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Big thanks to EP135 guest Stephen Kirchner and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

EP89 – CPI inflation concerns with Darren Brady Nelson

There are growing concerns over CPI inflation after all the money printing associated with the pandemic response.

Episode 89 of Economics Explored features a conversation on just how worried we should be about future inflation in this time of MMT and QE between Economics Explored host Gene Tunny and returning guest Darren Brady Nelson, chief economist of the Australian libertarian think tank LibertyWorks and a policy adviser to the Heartland Institute.
Charts of data referred to in this episode:

Charts on CPI, money supply, US 10 year bond yield, and asset prices

This is the classic book by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz mentioned in this episode:

A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960

Please send through any questions, comments, or suggestions to contact@economicsexplored.com and we will aim to address them in an upcoming episode. Alternatively, please leave a comment on this post.

Categories
Podcast episode

EP68 – COVID and Wartime: Comparison of economic impacts

Economics Explored episode 68 COVID and Wartime features a conversation on whether COVID can be compared to wartime, which considers the different scales and scopes of the shocks, and what it all means for prospects for economic recovery. Economics Explored host Gene Tunny, an Australian professional economist and former Treasury official, speaks with businessman Tim Hughes, also based in Brisbane, Australia.

Gene and Tim conclude that a comparison of COVID to wartime isn’t valid. One reason is that World War II required a complete reorganisation of the economy to maximise production for the war effort, while COVID has involved restrictions that have reduced economic activity. 

Links relevant to the conversation include:

Comparing COVID-19 to past world war efforts is premature — and presumptuous

US Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder on The National Debt Dilemma

Brookings on What’s the Fed doing in response to the COVID-19 crisis? What more could it do?

Australia’s Boldest Experiment (excellent book on Australia’s wartime economy)

Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (outstanding book by a leading US economist containing a great discussion of America’s wartime economy)

Aussies over-confident after being over-compensated by Gov’t for COVID-recession

Mint security lapse amazes judge (story about theft from the Australian Mint in early-to-mid 2000s)

Finally, the word Gene got stuck on at 6:55, irredentist, means, “a person advocating the restoration to their country of any territory formerly belonging to it”, according to Oxford Languages.

If you’d like to ask a question for Gene to answer in a future episode or if you’d like to make a comment or suggestion, please get in touch via the website. Thanks for listening.