A different view of an inflation/price level target: No-monetization commitment

In New Zealand a strange thing is happening.  While other countries are looking at making their inflation targets more explicit following the crisis, and many more countries are debating whether to use a level or growth target (eg the NGDP target is essentially a price level target with some flexibility – while flexible inflation targeting is very close to a NGDP growth targeting type rule), there appears to be calls here that we should throw these things away here.

We have discussed how these rules are useful a number of times in the past, especially important we always say is the ability these targets have for “anchoring expectations”.  After all, if we can anchor expectations of inflation then:

  1. We can largely avoid relative price distortions from unexpected inflation
  2. We increase certainty about the return on investment (by getting rid of purely nominal shifts for contracts without inflation adjustment)
  3. We have the ability to strongly respond in the face of a crisis – as inflation expectations are anchored, firms are monopolistically competitive, and some prices are sticky we can use monetary policy to help boost underlying demand in a demand constrained economy.
  4. As a result, fiscal policy only has to focus on the supply side of the economy and redistribution (unless we run into the zero lower bound, and the central bank isn’t allowed to print or buy assets to meet its targets).

However, for some reason this isn’t enough for people.  So lets look at the idea of expectation in a more public choice sense.

Governments don’t like us to know we are being taxed to pay for the treats we get given, some democratically elected officials are tempted to “monetize debt” in order to pay for it – its a silent tax!  To solve this, we give a central bank independence.  Ok, but the independence only exists in so far as the central bank is following a rule provided by government.  So we want contracts that help solve any possible “time-inconsistency problem”.  This is all fine and good.

So what should this contract be like?  Ultimately, the implicit tax appears whenever inflation is higher than expected – so when the central bank pumps in more juice than is consistent with the price setting behaviour of firms and households.  At first firms and households will be unsure if the extra currency is additional demand for their product/service, or for all products/services, so they will lift output/work … but once they see costs rise and once they see inflation itself is higher, they will respond by lifting inflation expectations.

This tells us that any extra output from breaking an inflation target, is only temporary, but the increase in inflation expectations will be permanent.  Again, this is one of our typical justifications … where does monetization come in?

Well the higher inflation also appears when we think about government bonds.  In money markets people ask for a nominal rate of return, based on expectations of inflation.  By increasing inflation past this level, we lower the real debt burden faced by government – they get a windfall, and the people paying for it are the people who lean’t to them.  However, this windfall is only temporary and ends up with higher nominal interest rates and higher inflation expectations (and realized inflation).

Government could commit to not doing this in two ways:  1)  Only sell inflation adjusted bonds,  2)  Have a central bank with an inflation target.

Here a credible inflation target also amounts to a commitment by government to not tax its citizens by stealth.

Inflation/price level/NGDP targeting (where we are targeting forecasts of the future) offers a clear and consistent way of dealing with the fact that we have a monopoly supplier of currency in a public choice sense, and it allows central bankers to manage the “demand side” of the economy IF we have appropriate information and an understanding of what is going on.  Getting a central bank to target “other things” outside of how they impact upon the forecast of inflation/price level/NGDP doesn’t make any sense.  [Note:  People weirdly seem to think that the Bank completely ignores them – this is completely wrong.  They focus on them as issues with regard to monetary policy, and all that information is captured in their inflation forecast]

If we think the “exchange rate is too high” ask why.  We might say the current account deficit has been high for a long time, but then why.  Well its high because the real exchange rate is high, and real interest rates are high – this tells us that domestic savings are too low … this has nothing to do with the inflation target of a central bank (as they do not control the long-term real interest or exchange rates) and everything to do with competition and fiscal policy in the domestic economy.  It is part of the “cost” of the policies that we have put in place as a society – so we should accept that there is a trade-off there, instead of destroying the RBNZ’s ability to do its job – as we have mentioned before.  Scott Sumner discusses this issue more here – and I think it is a fundamental confusion between the two that is creating so much noise in NZ at present.


3 replies
  1. Brennan McDonald
    Brennan McDonald says:

    What about if the government sells inflation-adjusted bonds and keeps running deficits?
    Would that accelerate inflation expectations are the cost of government debt significantly more than we’d expect?

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      If they only sold inflation-adjusted bonds and ran persistent deficits above growth in nominal revenue, then that sounds pretty unsustainable – and would eventually lead to default right. Which would imply a rising risk premium in the interim.

      I’m not quite sure what you are saying about inflation expectations here. Is there any chance you could elaborate.

      • Brennan McDonald
        Brennan McDonald says:

        Here’s an attempt at explaining how I’m thinking about this:
        1. Government sells inflation-adjusted bonds.
        2. Does not decrease deficits.
        3. Inflation increases the cost of debt service for inflation-adjusted bonds which in turn increases the cost of debt service for all govt debt.
        4. Bondholders expect that inflation will be even higher because additional debt service costs blow out deficits even more.
        5. The risk premium increases faster than the government’s ability to channel money towards debt service.
        6. The default happens far sooner than anyone expected because higher inflation expectations led to a runaway increase in the risk premium demanded by bondholders.
        7. Alternatively, a credit downgrade leads to an even higher risk premium demanded by bondholders, making the situation worse.

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