Archive for January, 2015

Some Quick Takeaways from the ECJ Opinion of Advocate General Cruz Villalón on the ECB’s OMT

Jörg Bibow | January 14, 2015

The Advocate General (AG) has spoken on the ECB’s OMT program today. Apparently the markets were more concerned about the latest U.S. retail sales numbers than delighted about the “okay in principle provided that” signal sent from Luxembourg to the German triangle of euro power (Frankfurt, Berlin, and Karlsruhe).

First of all, in the AG’s view, OMT constitutes monetary policy but not economic policy. That was one of the critical issues. The German Constitutional Court (GCC) had preliminarily concluded that the ECB may be stepping outside the monetary policy domain, for which it enjoys exclusive competence. In its previous judgment on the Pringle case the ECJ found that the ESM constitutes economic policy, which remains primarily a national responsibility in Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union, and does not encroach on the ECB’s territory. On OMT the opposite verdict was reached, based on the following evaluation:

“in order for a measure of the ECB actually to form part of monetary policy, it must specifically serve the primary objective of maintaining price stability and it must also take the form of one of the monetary policy instruments expressly provided for in the Treaties and not be contrary to the requirement for fiscal discipline and the principle that there is no shared financial liability. If there are isolated economic-policy aspects to the measure at issue, the latter will be compatible with the ECB’s mandate only as long as it serves to ‘support’ economic policy measures and is subordinate to the ECB’s overriding objective” (AG 2015, No. 132).

In other words, the AG sides with the ECB’s argument that OMT is about “unblocking” the monetary transmission mechanism, and hence monetary policy, rather than a measure designed to facilitate the funding of certain member states, which would make it economic policy instead. OMT is judged to be an unconventional monetary policy instrument designed to meet the exceptional challenges of the day.

“Despite the efforts of the European Union (‘the Union’) and the Member States, the risk premia for bonds of various euro-area States rose sharply in the summer of 2012. In the face of investors’ doubts about the survival of monetary union, the representatives of the Union and of the States of the euro area repeatedly stressed that the single currency was irreversible. It was at that time that the President of the ECB, in words that were subsequently repeated over and over again, stated that he would, within his mandate, do whatever it took to preserve the euro” (AG 2015, No. 20).

While the objective of “preserving the euro” would seem to go well beyond the supposedly narrow monetary mandate of maintaining price stability, the ECB, in a way, merely promised to back up with money what the political leaders had declared to be their ultimate economic policy objective: the irreversibility of the common currency. This would seem to also make it an incident of ECB “support” of the union’s general economic policy: supportive words on words of support. A less generous observer might be tempted to say that failure on the part of the political authorities to establish sound institutions and policies that would foster area-wide prosperity and the sustainability of the common currency gets temporarily plastered over by the threat of meeting speculative attacks by throwing central bank money at it.

The AG has interesting things to say on market speculation. continue reading…


Replacing the Budget Constraint with an Inflation Constraint

Michael Stephens | January 13, 2015

by Scott Fullwiler

Tim Worstall has a post decrying the dangers of MMT ever being used in the real world—even as he recognizes or at least suggests that it might be the correct description of how the monetary system works—and is particularly concerned about Stephanie Kelton’s new appointment as Chief Economist on the Senate Budget Committee. (Note: Randy Wray also posted a critique of Mr. Worstall’s post.)

Mr. Worstall’s main issue is one we’ve heard hundreds of times before—because MMT explains that currency-issuing governments operating under flexible exchange rates and without debt in a foreign currency do not actually have budget constraints, this opens the door to all sorts of problems if put into practice. We can’t trust our government with this information, in other words—it must be required to match spending with revenues over some period (whether each year, over the business cycle, etc.) or at least plan over some period of time to not allow the debt ratio to rise beyond a modest level.**

Mr. Worstall notes the frequently heard MMT argument that the point of taxes is to regulate the economy—and takes particular issue with the view that taxes can be increased/decreased in real time. Note, though, that this is simply a metaphorical or simplified explanation—it blends the Chartalist argument that “taxes drive money” with the functional finance view of using the outcomes of the government budget position as the criterion by which to judge it (rather than the state of the budget position itself). It is not intended as a literal point—no MMTer has ever made a specific proposal for raising/lowering income tax rates in real time to manage the economy. (Though Ray Fair does offer a sales tax proposal and shows that it would be stabilizing here—I simulated it along with the Job Guarantee and another transfer payment rule here.)

As argued bazillions of times, the real point MMT is making is that the government’s budget constraint is the wrong constraint—the correct constraint is whether or not a particular budget position will raise inflation beyond an official target rate (say, 2%, which seems to be the choice of most central bankers).

Let me explain to Mr. Worstall and others how this could work rather easily—just as the CBO and OMB now evaluate government budget proposals regarding their effects on the budget stance, the CBO and OMB could instead shift focus on evaluating these proposals against the inflation target (I argued the same thing here, printable version here). Much like how policy makers supposedly take estimates of effects on the budget position rather seriously in making budget conditions, they could replace these with projections of inflationary effects. An inflation constraint provides more fiscal space than a budget constraint, but in no way does it provide unlimited fiscal space (again, as we’ve always argued).

We could add quite a bit of detail here if we want, but I’ll just say a few more things. First, it’s quite clear that economists don’t have much expertise modeling how to use the government’s budget stance to manage the macroeconomy via a functional finance rule—but this is largely because they have come to view monetary policy as the main macroeconomic policy tool, not because it’s not possible.

Note, though, that functional finance isn’t less specific than, say, the Taylor Rule—Taylor’s Rule says to adjust the interest rate to manage the macroeconomy; functional finance says to manage the budget position to do this. Consider the never ending debate among policy makers at the Fed, Fed watchers, and economists on what the Fed should do next, when it should do it, how it should communicate what it’s going to do, and so on. If Taylor’s Rule were really that useful, we wouldn’t need most of this debate and there wouldn’t be so much disagreement among the various parties.

Second, concerns that government policymaking is necessarily less “efficient” than monetary policy are unpersuasive to me (even aside from my view that monetary policy traditionally understood as manipulations of the overnight rate isn’t a good idea). What if some of the thousands of economists currently working on understanding monetary policy started to try and understand how to build automatic stabilizers? They might help us understand which taxes (or tweaks to them, like indexing marginal tax rates to the inflation target rather than inflation) or spending priorities (or tweaks, like indexing spending to the target rate) are most consistent with functional finance—we don’t need to adjust tax rates in real time as much as build in a significant amount of stabilization automatically (i.e., more than we already have). MMT has its own proposal—the Job Guarantee—which we have argued in dozens if not hundreds of publications possesses macroeconomically significant stabilization properties if well designed.

For sure, times like the last several years may call for more than just automatic stabilizers (or it may instead call for better financial regulation to avoid a speculative bubble and then a deep recession in the first place). However, while I am under no illusions that we could ever get totally rid of some of the messy politics of fiscally-driven stabilization, it’s not as if monetary policy even when set by a small group of “experts” (like the FOMC) has been apolitical (and, as noted above, it’s been highly contentious among even the true believers in monetary policy which strategy is/was the appropriate one).

In sum, let’s stop pretending that replacing a budget constraint with an inflation constraint is so hard. It involves a change in perspective, nothing more and nothing less. It doesn’t give license to policy makers to do whatever they want. It does mean CBO will finally be doing something useful with its deficit projections—namely, building models to understand how deficits will affect the macroeconomy (while its current practice is to assume an economy at full employment and warn of impending financial ruin as a result of deficits). Stephanie’s appointment gives reason to hope at least a little that this change might actually one day be possible, for the benefit of all of us (including Mr. Worstall).

**The latter is actually what neoclassical economics argues—contrary to popular understanding, there are no economic theories that require the government to ever balance its budget. What they argue is that the government must eventually keep its debt ratio at a modest level, which does allow modest deficits on average forever. What this does require is primary surpluses (i.e., budget position before accounting for debt service) to offset primary deficits if the interest on the national debt is above the economy’s growth rate. In fact, though, this condition hasn’t been met on average in the post WWII period; only the 1979-2000 period saw average interest on the national debt rise above the economy’s growth rate.

(cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives)


How Much Should We Worry about the Fate of the ECB’s OMT?

Jörg Bibow |

On Wednesday, January 14, 2015, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) Advocate General Pedro Cruz Villalon will publish his opinion on the European Central Bank’s (ECB) “Outright Monetary Transactions” (OMT) program. The Advocate General’s opinion will give us important clues and is likely going to shape the court’s later ruling on the matter. What is at issue?

The OMT program played a critical role in calming the markets since the height of the euro panic in the summer of 2012. ECB president Mario Draghi kicked off the counterattack on the markets by dropping his by now famous “whatever it takes” hint in a speech in late July in London. A few days later, on August 2, 2012, the ECB announced that “the Governing Council, within its mandate to maintain price stability over the medium term and in observance of its independence in determining monetary policy, may undertake outright open market operations of a size adequate to reach its objective.” The technical details of the OMT were then published on September 6, 2012, when the bank also terminated its earlier Securities Markets Programme (SMP) under which it had purchased fairly small quantities of government debts issued by euro crisis countries. Moreover, any purchases were sterilized to preempt “monetary financing” accusations (see here).

Rather predictably, like in the case of the earlier SMP, the OMT immediately came under sharp attack by Germany’s monetary orthodoxy. As a result, the OMT is also under review by Germany’s own Constitutional Court (GCC). In early 2014, the GCC referred the matter to the ECJ, not without publishing its own preliminary assessment though. Largely following the Bundesbank’s critical assessment of OMTs as persistently argued by its president Jens Weidmann, the GCC criticized the OMT on a number of counts, suggesting that the ECB may be overstepping its own monetary policy mandate and the OMT may also be in conflict with the “monetary financing” prohibition (TFEU Article 123).

For instance, the GCC challenges the selectivity of OMT; as a supposed monetary policy measure that would only set out to purchase the debt securities of particular members facing funding pressures. It takes issue with the conditionality of OMTs (the supported member state must be in an ESFS/ESM “stabilization” program and adhere to its rules). It is also worried about the unlimited volume of the OMT and the assumption of default risk on the part of the ECB (fearing a euro “transfer union” and risks for German taxpayers). And, given the ECB’s claims that it was fighting any irrational components in observed risk spreads, the GCC also questions whether a central bank is able to separate interest rate spreads into rational and irrational components.

The last point illustrates that the ECB made some strategic mistakes in selling OMT. In the context of the euro break-up discussions at the time, the ECB referred to irrational market bets leading to explosive risk spreads. The ECB was keen to send out the message that the euro was here to stay, as Mr. Draghi’s famous promise made clear. And that was probably an important part in making OMT work without actually having to activate it. The point is that in the context of the EU treaties, the ECB has exclusive responsibility for monetary policy with its primary price stability mandate, but not for economic policy. One can make the argument that preventing euro breakup is a precondition for maintaining price stability in the euro area. But then one could argue the same for preventing a nuclear war or climate change. Clearly the political authorities and not the ECB are ultimately in charge of keeping the euro whole. It may be laudable for the ECB to step in when the political authorities fail to live up to the task, but, strange as it may seem, it is the ECB rather than the political authorities that ends up facing legal challenges for its conduct (supposedly for overstepping its mandate when the political authorities have been failing to take the necessary steps to heal the euro all along).

Be that as it may, OMT served its purpose well, and without actually ever being activated. I called it a bluff at the time, but it turned out to be a hugely successful one. I called it a bluff, among other things, because it seemed clear to me that the “more-of-the-same” conditionality attached to OMT could only push the euro area ever deeper into the mess rather than rescue anyone, and even with more accommodative monetary policy. I turned out to be partly right and partly wrong. Certainly the state of the euro area economy today, despite years of freeloading on global growth, remains extremely fragile. But, entranced by Mr. Draghi’s promise, the markets have stayed calm all along and played along watching the euro area sink into outright deflation. So does OMT still matter today then?

First of all, and contrary to the widespread view that the ECJ won’t ever do anything that could threaten the euro or ECB, it is perfectly conceivable that the Advocate General’s opinion will be critical of certain aspects of the OMT. After all, the GCC’s reasoning followed closely an earlier ECJ ruling on a related matter, namely on the ESM (the Pringle case). In that case, the ECJ went out of its way to declare the ESM purely a matter of economic but not monetary policy. Now the issue is the opposite: is OMT purely a matter of monetary but not economic policy? The ECJ will want to make sure not to contradict itself. And that won’t be as easy as just saying that OMT is brilliant and flawless.

At this point, the OMT verdict is mostly relevant because the ECJ ruling might imply constraints for the ECB’s design of any “quantitative easing” (QE) strategy, the option of purchasing government bonds in particular. For sure, QE is not OMT. The ECB intends to buy the debts of all member states rather than of a few. As usual, there will be minimum quality standards (credit rating) of what the ECB is willing to buy, which may be an issue in the case of Greece. But there will be no explicit conditionality of the kind featured in the OMT. And with EONIA at zero (or even slightly negative) and the euro area as a whole officially in a state of deflation today, there is no longer any difficulty justifying QE as nothing else but a monetary policy measure designed to meet the ECB’s price stability mandate (on which it currently fails conspicuously). With QE now conventionally accepted as the unconventional monetary policy tool of last resort, the monetary financing issue can also be put to rest more easily. It is noteworthy that the ECB stopped sterilizing its purchases under the SMP in the summer of last year, even before officially embarking on QE …


What a Syriza Victory Would Mean

Michael Stephens | January 12, 2015

Greece is back in the headlines as upcoming elections look likely to produce a workable majority for the anti-austerity Syriza party. Some suggest this would represent the first step toward the country’s inevitable exit from the eurozone. Not so fast, says Dimitri Papadimitriou in an interview with Bloomberg Radio’s Kathleen Hays and Vonnie Quinn (segment begins around 13:40).

A Syriza victory would likely usher in significant changes — most notably the plan to write down Greece’s public debt and end austerity policies — but Papadimitriou emphasizes that pulling Greece from the eurozone is not part of Syriza’s platform. And he suggests that much of the “Grexit” talk being deployed by the current government in Greece and other European policymakers (particularly in the vicinity of Berlin) should be understood as a scare tactic directed at the Greek electorate. (In that vein, Peter Spiegel recently reported in the Financial Times that “privately, European officials acknowledge that 2015 is not 2012. Nobody really believes Grexit is imminent.” Spiegel’s article, which contains this particular gem, is worth reading in full: “At the core of Mr Tsipras’s economic platform is debt relief, an idea so unthinkable that nearly every mainstream economist has advocated it.”)

Contrary to those who now confidently claim the eurozone would be just fine if Greece were to leave or be forced out, Papadimitriou cautions that we do not really know what the contagion effects would be (how it would affect, for instance, depositors in various banks in Portugal and elsewhere). Eurozone policymakers who are (genuinely) sanguine about a breakup should be thinking about whether this could be their Lehman Brothers moment, he says.

But a new direction — moving beyond austerity and internal devaluation — is urgently needed. And Papadimitriou argues that, much as the Federal Reserve has been unable to gain much traction, Draghi’s version of QE won’t have a big impact on the real economy (though Papadimitriou does allow that it could help a bit in Greece because that country is “starving for liquidity”). It’s fiscal policy, he says, not monetary policy, that holds the key to recovery in Greece, and ending the austerity experiment would be the first step. (On that front, Papadimitriou suggests there are signs that may indicate a desire to relax the “German occupation” of Greek fiscal policy.)

However, ending austerity is not nearly sufficient. Papadimitriou points out that even if the Greek economy quickly returns to moderate rates of economic growth (by no means a given) it would take more than a decade-and-a-half to get back to the employment levels of 2009. Greece needs a “New Deal,” he says — perhaps funded by a moratorium on interest payments on Greek debt held by the public sector — and which should include an idea included in the original New Deal: the expansion of a direct job creation program.

For more on the latter proposal, this policy brief lays out the macroeconomic payoffs of implementing direct job creation programs of various sizes in Greece (notably, a one-year moratorium on interest payments could cover the net cost of a 440,000-job program for three years. Given the positive multiplier effects involved, a program that size could cut the number of unemployed in half).

Beyond that, he argues, there should be no more muddling through in the eurozone. Ultimately, the goal should be to fix the incomplete euro architecture. Papadimitriou has written that the key mistake in the eurozone setup was the designed divorce of fiscal policy from a sovereign currency: see, e.g., “Euroland’s Original Sin.”

(Here are a couple of possible avenues for approaching those more fundamental design issues: Jörg Bibow, “The Euro Treasury Plan“; Mario Tonveronachi, “The ECB and the Single European Financial Market.”)


Oh Me Oh My! MMT Is About!

L. Randall Wray |

Here’s an unintentionally hilarious piece by Tim Worstall at Forbes. Watch out, he warns, MMT has come to Washington! Our nation’s capital! No doubt ruin and wastage will follow.

Why? Well. Nothing wrong with the theory of Modern Money Theory, he admits.

“It’s not actually that I disagree very much with the economics that is being laid out in MMT: indeed, I’m terribly tempted to agree that they’re actually correct in much of what they say.”

He admits that MMT is right on budgets:

“It’s most certainly not obvious that MMT proponents are all barking mad or anything. Jamie Galbraith (who I’ve had one or two very limited interactions with) is certainly a reasonable guy. And his insistence that a budget surplus, despite the ribbing he gets about it, is in fact economically contractionary doesn’t seem to have anything wrong with it. Budget deficits are fiscally expansive, a surplus is fiscally contractionary, if there’s any one statement at the heart of Keynesianism that’s it.”

And it is right on money:

“And their basic outline about money creation is true as far as I can see. If you’re a country with your own central bank you can print as much money as you like.”

And really nothing wrong with the policy, either. No, it is all politics.

What he’s afraid of is that if politicians understood that they cannot run out of money, they’d spend like they cannot run out of money. And off we’d go to Weimar and Zimbabwe land.

It is the same line that Paul Samuelson took, when he argued that the job of an economist is to lie. Or, better, to preach the old time religion and superstition. Put real fear into the politicians and the voters they represent.

Government is just like a household, you know. Careful, Gov, you’ll run out of money. You’ll have to go hat-in-hand to Bond Vigilantes when you run out. Uncle Sam will have to go to the Salvation Army for a cup of soup.

It is the same old fear mongering by someone who does not trust the democratic process and does not understand budgeting.

The way we ensure that policymakers don’t run up the spending to create hyperinflation is by subjecting them to the budgeting process, and then holding the administrative branch to approved budgets. It isn’t religion, superstition, or fear mongering that forestalls accelerating inflation. It is accountability.

And where-O-where do our blogging pundits get the idea that all politicians always and everywhere are pushing for hyperinflation? I see exactly the opposite.

(cross-posted from EconoMonitor)


Auf Wiedersehen to Austerity?

Michael Stephens | January 11, 2015

With the January 25th elections in Greece approaching, Dimitri Papadimitriou writes about the future of Greek policy and the discussions that took place at a recent Levy Institute conference in Athens:

At the Athens economics conference, Europe At The Crossroads, the participants were a diverse collection of policymakers, overflowing with disagreements on the very best route to growth. Nonetheless, with one notable exception (the leader of Ireland’s central bank, endorsing European Central Bank policy), the overwhelming majority united on a single principle:

The bailout and its related austerity programs have failed miserably. […]

The home base of some of the conference’s strongest austerity critics may come as a surprise. Peter Bofinger of Germany, the only Keynesian in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s council of economic advisers, described the risks the current approach poses for Greece, France, and Italy, and outlined why a continuation also threatens to destroy the rest of Europe.

That includes Germany. Pointing to serious weaknesses in its economic foundations, Bofinger particularly singled out the FRG’s problematic physical infrastructure, an issue echoed by Elga Bartsch, Chief European economist at Morgan Stanley. And Bofinger raised the widely ignored fact that — despite endless German bellyaching about the so-called EU drain on its wealth — Germany’s contribution to other members of the European Union has been exactly zero euros.

Read the rest: “Hello 2015. Goodbye Austerity?

You can listen to the Bofinger presentation here.

The rest of the presentations from the Athens conference, including that of Syriza MP Yannis Dragasakis, can be found here; slides are posted here. Video of the presentations will be posted shortly on the Institute’s YouTube page.