Many economists and commentators blame the Federal Reserve for the increasingly tepid economic recovery in the United States. For example, Ryan Avent calls the Fed’s unwillingness to further ease monetary policy a “dereliction of duty” and Felix Salmon claims that “we have low bond yields because the Fed has failed to do its job”. Most people assume that the adoption of a higher inflation target (or an NGDP target) and conventional quantitative easing (QE) via government bond purchases will suffice. Milton Friedman, for example, had argued that government bond purchases with “high-powered money” would have dragged Japan out of its recession. But how exactly is more QE supposed to work in an environment when treasury bonds are trading at all-time low yields and banks are awash in excess reserves?
If we analyse monetary policy as a threat strategy, then how do we make sure that the threat is credible? According to Nick Rowe, “The Fed needs to communicate its target clearly. And it needs to threaten to do unlimited amounts of QE for an unlimited amount of time until its target is hit. If that threat is communicated clearly, and believed, the actual amount of QE needed will be negative.” In essence, this is a view that market expectations are sufficient to do the job.
Expectations are a large component of how monetary policy works but expectations only work when there is a clear and credible set of actions that serve as the bazooka(s) to enforce these expectations. In other words, what is it exactly that the central bank threatens to do if the market refuses to react sufficiently to its changed targets? It is easy to identify the nature of the threat when the target variable is simply a market price, e.g. an exchange rate vs another currency (such as the SNB’s enforcement of a minimum EURCHF exchange rate) or an exchange rate vs a commodity (such as the abandoning of the gold standard). But when the target variable is not a market price, the transmission mechanism is nowhere near as simple.
Scott Sumner would implement an NGDP targeting regime in the following manner:
First create an explicit NGDP target. Use level targeting, which means you promise to make up for under- or overshooting. If excess reserves are a problem, get rid of most of them with a penalty rate. Commit to doing QE until various asset prices show (in the view of Fed officials) that NGDP is expected to hit the announced target one or two years out. If necessary buy up all of Planet Earth.
Interest on Reserves
Small negative rates on reserves or deposits held at the central bank are not unusual. But banks can and will pass on this cost to their deposit-holders in the form of negative deposit rates and given the absence of any better liquid and nominally safe investment options, most bank customers will pay this safety premium. For example, when the SNB charged negative rates on offshore deposits denominated in Swiss Franc in the mid-1970s, the move did very little to stem the inflow into the currency.
Significant negative rates are easily evaded as people possess the option to hold cash in the form of bank notes. As SNB Vice-Chairman Jean-Pierre Danthine notes:
With strongly negative interest rates, theory joins practice and seems to lead to a policy of holding onto bank notes (cash) rather than accounts, which destabilises the system.
Quantitative Easing: Government Bonds
Conventional QE can be deconstructed into two components: an exchange of money for treasury-bills and an exchange of treasury-bills for treasury-bonds. The first component has no impact on the market risk position of the T-bill holder for whom deposits and T-bills are synonymous in a zero-rates environment. But it is also irrelevant from the perspective of the banking system unless the rate paid on reserves is significantly negative (which can be evaded by holding bank notes as discussed above).
The second component obviously impacts the market risk position of the economy as a whole. It is widely assumed that by purchasing government bonds, the central bank reduces the duration risk exposure of the market as a whole thus freeing up risk capacity. But for most holders of government bonds (especially pension funds and insurers), duration is not a risk but a hedge. A nominal dollar receivable in 20 years is not always riskier than a nominal dollar receivable today – for those who hold the bond as a hedge for a liability of a nominal dollar payable in 20 years, the dollar receivable today is in fact the riskier holding. More generally the negative beta nature of government bonds means that the central bank increases the risk exposure of the economy when it buys them.
Apart from the market risk impact of QE, we need to examine whether it has any impact on the liquidity position of the private economy. In this respect, neither the first or the second step has any impact for a simple reason – the assets being bought i.e. govt bonds are already safe collateral both in the shadow banking system as well as with the central bank itself. Therefore, any owner of government bonds can freely borrow cash against it. The liquidity preference argument is redundant in differentiating between deposits and an asset that qualifies as safe collateral. Broad money supply is therefore unaffected when such an asset is purchased.
If conventional QE were the only tool in the arsenal, announcing higher targets or NGDP targets achieves very little. The Bank of England and the Federal Reserve could buy up the entire outstanding stock of govt bonds and the impact on inflation or economic growth would be negligible in the current environment.
Credit Easing and More: Private Sector Assets
Many proponents of NGDP targeting would assert that limiting the arsenal of the central bank to simply treasury bonds is inappropriate and that the central bank must be able to purchase private sector assets (bonds, equities) or as Scott Sumner exhorts above “If necessary buy up all of Planet Earth”. There is no denying the fact that by buying up all of Planet Earth, any central bank can create inflation. But when the assets bought are already liquid and market conditions are not distressed, buying of private assets creates inflation only by increasing the price and reducing the yield of those assets i.e. a wealth transfer from the central bank to the chosen asset-holders. As with quantitative easing through government bond purchases, the inability to enforce adequate penalties on reserves nullifies any potential “hot potato” effect.
Bernanke himself has noted that the liquidity facility interventions during the 2008-2009 crisis and QE1 were focused on reducing private market credit spreads and improving the functioning of private credit markets at a time when the market for many private sector assets was under significant stress and liquidity premiums were high. The current situation is not even remotely comparable – yields on private credit instruments are at relatively elevated levels compared to historical median spreads but the difference in absolute terms is only about 50 bps on investment-grade credit (see table below) as compared to much higher levels (at least 300-40 bps on investment grade) during the 2008-2009 crisis.
A quantitative easing program focused on purchasing private sector assets is essentially a fiscal program in monetary disguise and is not even remotely neutral in its impact on income distribution and economic activity. Even if the central bank buys a broad index of bonds or equities, such a program is by definition a transfer of wealth towards asset-holders and regressive in nature (financial assets are largely held by the rich). The very act of making private sector assets “safe” is a transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to some of the richest people in our society. The explicit nature of the central banks’ stabilisation commitment means that the rent extracted from the commitment increases over time as more and more economic actors align their portfolios to hold the stabilised and protected assets.
Such a program is also biased towards incumbent firms and against new firms. The assumption that an increase in the price of incumbent firms’ stock/bond price will flow through to lending and investment in new businesses is unjustified due to the significantly more uncertain nature of new business lending/investment. This trend has been exacerbated since the crisis and the bond market is increasingly biased towards the largest, most liquid issuers. Even more damaging, any long-term macroeconomic stabilisation program that commits to purchasing and supporting macro-risky assets will incentivise economic actors to take on macro risk and shed idiosyncratic risk. Idiosyncratic risk-taking is the lifeblood of innovation in any economy.
In other words, QE is not sufficient to hit any desired inflation/NGDP target unless it is expanded to include private sector assets. If it is expanded to include private sector assets, it will exacerbate the descent into an unequal, crony capitalist, financialised and innovatively stagnant economy that started during the Greenspan/Bernanke put era.
Removing the zero-bound
One way of getting around the zero-bound on interest rates is to simply abolish or tax bank note holdings as Willem Buiter has recommended many times:
The existence of bank notes or currency, which is an irredeemable ‘liability’ of the central bank – bearer bonds with a zero nominal interest rate – sets a lower bound (probably at something just below 0%) on central banks’ official policy rates.
The obvious solutions are: (1) abolishing currency completely and moving to E-money on which negative interest rates can be paid as easily as zero or positive rates; (2) taxing holdings of bank notes (a solution first proposed by Gesell (1916) and also advocated by Irving Fisher (1933)) or (3) ending the fixed exchange rate between currency and central bank reserves (which, like all deposits, can carry negative nominal interest rates as easily as positive nominal interest rates, a solution due to Eisler (1932)).
I’ve advocated many times on this blog that monetary-fiscal hybrid policies such as money-financed helicopter drops to individuals should be established as the primary tool of macroeconomic stabilisation. In this manner, inflation/NGDP targets can be achieved in a close-to-neutral manner that minimises rent extraction. My preference for fiscal-monetary helicopter drops over negative interest-rates is primarily driven by financial stability considerations. There is ample evidence that even low interest rates contribute to financial instability.
There’s a deep hypocrisy at the heart of the macro-stabilised era. Every policy of stabilisation is implemented in a manner that only a select few (typically corporate entities) can access with an implicit assumption that the impact will trickle-down to the rest of the economy. Central-banking since the Great Moderation has suffered from an unwarranted focus on asset prices driven by an implicit assumption that changes in asset prices are the best way to influence the macroeconomy. Instead doctrines such as the Greenspan Put have exacerbated inequality and cronyism and promoted asset price inflation over wage inflation. The single biggest misconception about the macro policy debate is the notion that monetary policy is neutral or more consistent with a free market and fiscal policy is somehow socialist and interventionist. A program of simple fiscal transfers to individuals can be more neutral than any monetary policy instrument and realigns macroeconomic stabilisation away from the classes and towards the masses.