In last month’s note from International Monetary Research Ltd. it was suggested that “money growth trends in the main countries are not far from perfection at present”. Not much has changed in the last few weeks to alter that assessment, although it has to be said that in most of the six jurisdictions (apart from India and perhaps China) the signs are of a slight acceleration in money growth. (In my view, the ideal annual rate of increase in money in the high-growth developing economies [i.e., China and India] lies in the 10% - 14% bracket, while the corresponding figure for the developed countries [i.e., the USA, the Eurozone, Japan and the UK] is between 2% and 5%, perhaps 6% at most.) Contrary to much tattle from the commentariat, aided and abetted by the Bank for International Settlements, “quantitative easing” in the Eurozone has been a clear and significant success. Macroeconomic conditions have improved markedly since late 2014, with Germany in particular contributing to the demand revival. (German broad money growth in recent months has been at very high annualised rates of over 7%. No wonder the Bundesbank is worried!) As for most of 2016, the oil price is being seen in financial markets as a proxy for global demand conditions. With Brent spot moving through the $50-a-barrel level, confidence is growing that demand in the main economies should be sufficient to deliver at least trend growth (say, 3% - 3½%) in world output in 2016. In my view, nothing in the recent banking and monetary policy developments to justifies a radically different view about 2017. If anything, my surmise is that virtually zero interest rates will encourage higher money growth, but the worry remains the regulatory attack on the banks. It would, be nice if the delinquent economies of 2015 and 2016 (Russia, Brazil, Venezuela), where output has been falling, see political changes/transformations and a return to output growth in 2017 or 2018
Evidence from the years of the Great Recession justify renewed attention to a broadly defined concept of the quantity of money in central bank researchControversy over the use of monetary aggregates undermined the impact of the monetarist counter-revolution of the 1970s and early 1980s. Top central bankers accepted Milton Friedman's dictum "money matters" was valid in some sense, but they were unsure exactly how and why it mattered. Practical application was elusive when their research departments produced data on half-a-dozen monetary aggregates. Which concept of money was of greatest importance - or at any rate of some relevance - to the determination of macroeconomic outcomes? Anthony Harris, one of the Financial Times' leading commentators, compared the quarrel to that between the 'Big-endians' and 'Little-endians' about the best way to open a boiled egg in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Some economists favoured 'broad money', which included all bank deposits and occasionally even included liquid assets that had arisen outside the banking system. Others supported 'narrow money' - generally taken to mean notes and coins in circulation plus sight deposits. The majority of monetary economists did not regard the monetary base (the liabilities of the central bank) as equivalent to 'the quantity of money' based on any definition. Instead, they believed the change in the base influenced the change in narrow money and hence affected expenditure at a further remove. However, some participants in the debate thought that the monetary base by itself, regardless of its role in banks' creation of money, had a significant bearing on spending and the economy.
Financial markets are concerned about ‘recession risk’, or so the newspapers tell us. When the world’s leading economies are viewed objectively, it would be hard to imagine circumstances in which recession was less likely. All recessions since the 1930s have begun with monetary policy tightening to curb inflation. This is true even of the 2008 � 2009 Greeat Recession, although officialdom’s reaction was disproportionate and misguided, and led to a few months of outright deflation. (Government, central banks and regulatory agencies imposed new regulations that acted like a punitive shock on banks, and stopped the growth of their balance sheets and hence of the bank deposits that constitute most of the quantity of money.) But today inflation in the leading economies (excluding India, and also such places as Russia and Brazil beset by corruption, political adventurism, misgovernment, etc.) is virtually zilch. The concern is not too much inflation, but the danger of deflation. In effect, there is no constraint on expansionary monetary policy. Objections to this argument are two-fold. The first is that in the United States of America the recovery is so mature that the labour market is showing signs of over-heating and a normalization of monetary policy (with higher interest rates) has become necessary. The weakness of this claim is that, although the unemployment rate has dropped to beneath long-run averages, many people have left the labour market temporarily because of lack of demand. The employment rate is still well below the 2008 level. Meanwhile the strong dollar is hurting manufacturing, reducing import costs (over and above the impact of low oil prices) and dampening inflation. Talk of four Fed rate rises in 2016 is starting to look very silly.
The latest criticism is that Quantitative Easing has been ‘good for the rich’, but ‘bad for investment’. Even the financial advice pages of the broadsheet press seem to be going down this route, which is bizarre given that the readers are mostly rich and ought to appreciate a policy allegedly in their interests. (In the note below I quote some remarks by Merryn Somerset Webb in a 12th October article in the Financial Times.) The truth is that profits are more volatile than national income, while the equity market (which is ultimately only a capitalization of profit streams) is more volatile than profits. The large fluctuations in equity prices are partly down to changing sentiment, but also critical are wide swings in the rate of growth of the quantity of money, particularly in the money holdings of the financial institutions which specialize in asset selection. (See, for example, my 2005 study for the Institute of Economic Affairs on Money and Asset Prices in Boom and Bust for an analysis.) In the short run (i.e., in the course of one business cycle) changes in asset prices are influenced by variations in the rate of money growth. So Quantitative Easing from early 2009 did help the equity market (and in that sense ‘the rich’), but it was also beneficial for demand, output and employment more widely. In the long run changes in the rate of money growth cannot affect anything much on the real side of the economy. (A caveat is that extreme inflation or deflation causes severe economic inefficiency in various ways, and that is why inflation and deflation should be avoided.) The FTSE 100 index is lower today than it was in 1999. Is Quantitative Easing (which began in earnest in March 2009) somehow to be blamed for that? Or should the policy or policy-maker supposedly responsible for the poor post-1999 performance be thanked for keeping share prices down? Indeed, does Ms. Somerset Webb think that any policy which enriches people is, by definition, wicked and evil?
Japan’s ‘Abenomics’ is reported to have three arrows, - a ‘revolution’ in monetary policy with ‘the Bank of Japan injecting huge amounts of “money” (whatever that means) into the economy’ (or something of the sort), - a short-term fiscal stimulus accompanied by long-term action to bring the public finances under control, and - ‘a growth strategy’ (which means in practice shaking up such over-protected parts of the Japanese economy as farming and retailing). Commentary on the last two of the three arrows has often been sceptical. Initial ‘stimulus’ (i.e., a widening of the budget deficit) is not easily reconciled with ultimate fiscal consolidation (i.e., a narrowing of the budget deficit), while Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has drawn much of its traditional support from groups that benefit from protection and restrictive practices. By contrast, most media reporting has suggested that the Bank of Japan has definitely changed course and that a major upheaval in monetary policy is under way. This note argues that, although Japanese monetary policy has indeed shifted in an expansionary direction, the shift is far less radical than the rhetoric that has accompanied it. Japanese policy-makers and the greater part of the commentariat seem to believe that the monetary base by itself has great macroeconomic importance. This is a mistake. National income and wealth in nominal terms are a function of the quantity of money, which must be distinguished sharply from the base. Movements in the monetary base and the quantity of money may be related, but the relationship is not necessarily all that precise or reliable. It is the quantity of money, not the monetary base by itself, that matters to macroeconomic outcomes.
The rate of change in the quantity of money, broadly-defined, is the fundamental driver of the rate of change of both nominal national income and nominal national wealth. Since a nation’s wealth includes both corporate equity and the main forms of real estate (residential, commercial, rural), money trends are basic to all investment decisions. Of course the patterns of money growth vary from country to country, depending on developments in the banking system and monetary policy. This note has a quick look at the USA, Japan and the Eurozone in early 2013. I hope to expand it next week. Anyhow, to summarize, in the first half of 2013 broad money growth ran, roughly, at the following annualised rates in the three areas, 4% to 5% in the USA, - 3% to 4% in Japan, and little more than zero in the Eurozone. My verdict is that money growth rates like these are consistent with a reasonable continuing recovery in the world economy, but not with the kind of strong rebound that might be expected after the savage downturn of 2009 and the rather feeble upturn in 2010. The exception remains the Eurozone, where the reports of an improvement in recent months seem far from convincing.
Rubbish – far too much rubbish – continues to be written about ‘quantitative easing’. As I have noted before, views on this set of open market operations vary wildly between so-called ‘experts’. On the one hand, Liam Halligan in his Sunday Telegraph column has compared QE to ‘money printing in banana republics’ and said it would lead to hyperinflation. On that basis, QE must be very powerful. On the other hand, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has on occasion denied that changes in the quantity of money due to QE can matter to anything, since – in Wolf’s view – changes in the quantity of money always do not matter to anything. On that basis, QE is impotent. Two further muddled and misguided contributions have recently appeared in the Financial Times, a piece on 9th July by John Kay (‘Quantitative easing and the curious case of the leaky bucket’) and another by Jonathan Davis on 15th July (‘The art and artifice of Fed-watching’.) Mr. Davis said that assessing the effects of ending QE ‘is ultimately a matter of subjective judgment, not a simple binary decision that can be derived from objective analysis of data’. As I said in a letter to the Financial Times of 22nd July (see the end of the accompanying note), this is plain wrong. As long as one accepts the standard account of the monetary determination of national income, the relationship between QE and nominal national income is very straightforward in its essentials. (I don’t dispute the complexity of some of the adjustment processes involved, but – as I have been writing about them for over 35 years – I don’t doubt that they exist.) The relationship is discussed in the following note. To summarize, without QE the quantity of money in the UK today would be about 25% lower than it actually is, and so – more or less – would be the equilibrium levels of national income and wealth in nominal terms. QE prevented the Great Recession becoming a second Great Depression. QE was therefore both desirable and necessary.
The Eurozone resembles a vast dyke which is full of holes and liable to disintegrate at any moment. This note concentrates on Portugal, where the recent resignation of the very able finance minister, Vitor Gaspar, was a huge disappointment. (It must be said that the Eurozone’s holes in Greece, Spain, Italy and France also remain large and conspicuous, despite international officialdom’s attempts to patch them.) Portugal’s problems arise partly because the economy’s trend rate of growth is now very low, perhaps even zero or negative. Gross domestic product per head is lower than ten years ago. With inflation almost zero, nominal GDP is at best flat. As a result, any deficit leads to an increase in the ratio of public debt to GDP. A May 2011 bailout negotiation with the ‘troika’ extended €78b. of loan and other financing, to help the Portuguese government and banking system. It must be acknowledged that Portugal has tried hard, with Gaspar at the finance ministry, to meet the conditions attached to the bailout plan. The cyclically-adjusted budget deficit fell from 9.0% in 2010 to 4.0% in 2012. Nevertheless, the debt-to-GDP ratio has kept on rising and is now over 120%, the kind of figure that was associated with the Greek dégringolade in 2012. (A fair verdict is that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 120% is sustainable when the nominal interest rate on the debt is 5% or less, but – once the interest rate goes into double digits – the debt interest burden runs amok like a Frankenstein monster.) The Portuguese people are apparently weary with austerity, and it has to be said that – without a resumption of growth and particularly of asset price appreciation, which would help banking solvency – the danger has to be that further deficit-reduction measures would not restore fiscal sustainability or national solvency. Holders of Portuguese banks’ bond liabilities and depositors with Portugal’s banks, you have been warned! PEXIT (Portuguese exit from the Eurozone) is – almost certainly – a better option than staying in.
More on the structural flaws of the EurozoneThe following note is in response to the call for evidence on ‘”Genuine Economic and Monetary Union” and its implications for the UK’ from the House of Lords’ European Union Committee, made on 24th April 2013. The main points of the note are
- banks’ risks of future loss, and hence their need for capital to protect depositors, depend heavily on future movements in asset prices, since these asset price movements determine the value of loan collateral,
- ii. a single set of capital rules (such as the Basle III rules now being imposed on advanced country banking systems) cannot be appropriate for all countries at all times, and undermines the flexibility of national regulators to deal with specifically national problems,
- banks’ loan losses in the Eurozone periphery nations are so large that depositors can be repaid in full only by capital injections from the state which affect these nations’ credit rating,
- the interaction between banks’ solvency problems and their host nations’ sovereign default risk has created a vicious downward spiral of fiscal and monetary retrenchment, and losses of output and employment, and
- this downward spiral is much worse than in a traditional monetary jurisdiction because governments in a multi-government monetary union such as the Eurozone cannot borrow from the central bank
The following note considers whether the aggressive monetary easing now apparently under way in Japan will prove effective in boosting the economy. The Bank of Japan has indicated that it will double the monetary base by the end of 2014. But the important monetary aggregate for the macroeconomic prospect is the quantity of money, broadly-defined. The analysis in the note shows that earlier surges in the monetary base and M1 over the last 18 years have not led to lasting improvements in demand and output, and they have not been enough to deliver meaningfully positive inflation.