Over the weekend many of the world’s central bankers were guests of the Kansas Federal Reserve in Jackson Hole Wyoming. In terms of location I believe it was chosen because a previous chair of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker was a keen fisherman. However this late August symposium has become one which influences the economic winds of change as central bankers discussed easing policy in response to the credit crunch and in more recent times a speech was given on what were perceived to be the wonders of Forward Guidance. Michael Woodford was very clever in suggesting to a group who wanted to believe that they could influence events via mere speaking or what has become called Open Mouth Operations.
I shall argue that the most eﬀective form of forward guidance involves advance commitment to deﬁnite criteria for future policy decisions.
They are still at that today to some extent although the definite criteria theme has mostly been ignored especially in the UK where it went wrong for the Bank of England almost immediately.
What about now?
The problem for the central bankers is that to coin a phrase that monetary policy may be “maxxed out” or as it is put more formally below.
despite attempts to set economies on normalization paths after the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis, the scope for countercyclical monetary policy remains limited: benchmark interest rates have continued to hover near or even below zero.
This is from a paper presented on Saturday by Alan Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko of the University of California Berkeley. In their conclusion they go further.
Although economists do not believe that expansions die from old age, the prolonged U.S. expansion will end sooner or later and there is serious concern about the ability of policymakers in the United States and other developed countries to fight the next economic downturn. Indeed the ammunition of central banks is much more limited now than before the Great Recession and it is unlikely that expansionary monetary policy can be as aggressive and effective as it was during the crisis.
Actually if monetary policy had been effective the paper would not be necessary as the various economies would have responded and we would be on a road where interest-rates were say 2/3% and central bank balance sheets were shrinking, In reality such interest-rates to quote Star Wars are “far, far away”.
If monetary policy has less scope for action then our central planners face being irrelevant so they will be grasping for an alternative and fortunately according to our two valiant professors it is at hand.
With tight constraints on central banks, one may expect—or maybe hope for—a more active response of fiscal policy when the next recession arrives.
The problem with this the familiar theme of the “bond vigilantes” turning up.
It is certainly conceivable (see e.g. Aguiar et al. 2017) that a significant fiscal stimulus can raise doubts about the ability of a government to repay its debts and, as a result, increase borrowing costs so much that the government may find its debt unsustainable and default.
This of course was last seen on a major scale in the Euro area crisis particularly in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. Of course the European Central Bank intervened by buying bonds and later followed another part of Michael Woodford’s advice by introducing a larger and more widespread QE or bond buying program. So we have seen central banks intervening in fiscal policy via a reduction in bond yields something which government’s try to keep quiet. We have individual instances of bond yield soaring such as Venezuela but the last few years have seen central banking victories and defeats for the vigilantes. In another form that continued this morning as I note that a North Korean ballistic missile passed over Japan but the Nikkei 225 equity index only fell 87 points presumably influenced by the way that the Bank of Japan buys on down days.
What about more overt fiscal policy?
Apparently this can work.
We find that in our sample expansionary government spending shocks have not been followed by persistent increases in debt-to-GDP ratios or borrowing costs (interest rates, CDS spreads). This result obtains especially when the economy is weak. In fact, a fiscal stimulus in a weak economy may help improve fiscal sustainability along the metrics we study.
Indeed this for them is essentially a continuation of past work.
This constraint on monetary policy coincides with a resurgence in activist fiscal policy (Auerbach and Gale, 2009), which has moved from a focus on automatic stabilizers to a stronger reliance on discretionary measures, reflecting not only necessity but also growing evidence of the effectiveness of such policy to fight recessions (e.g., Auerbach and Gorodnichenko, 2012, 2013).
Also I am reminded that we should never believe something until it is officially denied.
Given the nature of the sample analyzed, our results should not be interpreted as an unconditional call for an aggressive government spending in response to a deteriorating economy.
Jonathan Portes who is an advocate for fiscal policy has written this in Prospect Magazine.
The answer is very technical—£100 billion or so of the extra debt relates to the Bank of England’s Asset Purchase Facility. Briefly, the BoE makes loans to banks and buys corporate bonds, in return for cash (“central bank reserves”).
He suggests that as this has been mostly ignored( not on here) we could borrow for other purposes.
There is a fair bit to consider here as I note that North Korea has done its bit as bond markets have risen today and yields fallen. For example the UK ten-year Gilt yield has dropped to 1% giving us food for thought with inflation at either 2.6% ( CPI) or 3.6% ( RPI). A clear factor in the expected push for fiscal policy is that bond yields are so low as conventional UK Gilt yields do not go above 1.7% and other countries such as Germany Switzerland and Japan can borrow for much less. Against such bond yields theoretical analysis is always likely to look good so the first issue is whether they would be maintained in a fiscal expansion. Or to put it another way are central banks being asked here for a type of QE to infinity?
Next is the issue of how a fiscal stimulus is defined as for example countries which have stopped borrowing and run a surplus like Germany and Sweden are relatively rare. Most have continued to borrow and run annual fiscal deficits albeit usually declining ones. Thus the ballpark seems to have shifted to increasing deficits rather than having one at all which is the sort of “junkie culture” road that monetary policy went down. If we look back to a past advocate of fiscal stimulus John Maynard Keynes he was also someone who suggested that when the growth came there would be a period of payback.
What we also find ourselves mulling is the difference between the specific and the general. I am sure that everyone can think of a project that would provide plenty of benefits and gains but as we move to a more generalist position we find ourselves facing a reality of Hinkley Point and HS2. To be fair our two professors do acknowledge this.
Bridges to nowhere, “pet” projects and other wasteful spending can outweigh any benefits of countercyclical fiscal policy.
As a conclusion the Ivory Tower theory is that fiscal policy will work. There are two catches the first is that if they were even regularly right we would not be where we are. The next is that on some measures we have been trying it for quite some time.
In reality the establishment seems likely to latch onto this as we have discussed before.