The relationship between NGDP targets, a higher inflation target and helicopter money
Just suppose that lower oil prices help generate a period of significantly above average growth in the OECD economies over the next five years. We avoid deflation, but despite more rapid growth modest increases in interest rates keep inflation at or below target. Even if this happens, the story of the Great Recession will not have been a happy one. If you compare where we are now to where we might have been without a financial crisis, there remains a huge gap. Even if we go a good way to closing that gap over the next five years, this very gradual recovery will have cost us dear. In some countries (most of the Eurozone) that cost is currently reflected in high levels of unemployment, while in others (the US) it manifests itself in real wage stagnation or decline. (The UK is now in the latter group: if you are bored with hearing this from me, see this from John Van Reenen.)
Are there lessons to learn from this? You can probably divide economists into two camps at this point. One group, the ‘supply group’ - which would include most of those setting monetary policy - tend to think that we have largely done the best we could under the circumstances. By circumstances, I mean two related things: a rather surprising increase in inflation during 2011, and an apparent decline in the ability of the ‘supply side’ of the economy to grow at the kind of rates we might have expected before the crisis. While the former is undeniable, the second is conjecture, because we cannot observe the key driver of long term growth, which is technical progress.
The second group of economists attribute more of the slow recovery since the financial crisis to deficiency in aggregate demand. I am in that second ‘demand’ group, and have argued that fiscal austerity is responsible for a great deal of the slow recovery. Implicit in such arguments is the idea that had demand been strong, any further increase in inflation around 2011 would have been modest and temporary, which with wise monetary policy need not have led to any increase in interest rates.
I think most of the demand group also share a view that it would be a large mistake to shrug off this bad experience as a one-off, or as something that only occurs every century or so. The ‘one-off’ story could focus on an unfortunate misreading of the Eurozone crisis: however, while this might explain the change in attitudes is some important institutions like the IMF, it is less plausible in explaining why policy makers around the world switched to austerity. The ‘every century’ idea is wrong because it fails to note the changes that have been brought about by the widespread adoption of 2% inflation targets, coupled with a view that the ‘natural’ real interest rate is also likely to remain low for some time.
Different members of the demand group have proposed three different and radical innovations in macroeconomic policy to help avoid this kind of mistake happening again. These are targeting the level of nominal GDP (NGDP), raising the inflation target, and some form of helicopter money. Are these innovations alternatives or complementary to each other?
There are some (notably market monetarists) who seem to argue that changing monetary policy to NGDP targets is sufficient. My own view is less optimistic. A clear advantage of NGDP targets (and not its only advantage) is that they would create expectations of a more expansionary policy during and after the recovery phase from a recession, but in my view this would not be enough to prevent liquidity traps happening. This is because I see the problem of the liquidity trap (nominal interest rates being unable to fall below some lower bound around zero) as central to why the Great Recession was so prolonged, and episodes where we experience a liquidity trap as becoming more frequent because the inflation target (explicit, or implicit within the NGDP target) is low.
Raising the inflation target is an obvious way of reducing the frequency of liquidity traps. If the natural real interest rate is 2%, for example, then with a 4% inflation target, the nominal interest rate has much further to fall before the lower bound is reached than if the inflation target was 2%. It is important to note that this argument does not preclude adopting a NGDP target, because any target path for NGDP includes an implicit inflation target. For that reason, you can view NGDP targets and a higher inflation target as either complementary or alternatives, where the latter is true only if you think one device does the required job by itself.
Helicopter money is essentially giving the central bank an additional instrument - a form of fiscal stimulus. In that sense it is rather different from NGDP targets or a higher inflation target, because it involves instruments rather than the objectives of monetary policy. For that reason, in principle it could be a complement to both the other radical suggestions. In a way helicopter money is best seen as an alternative to Quantitative Easing, and there is no reason in principle why QE is not compatible with NGDP targets or a higher inflation target. It is possible of course that if helicopter money was shown to be effective in dealing with liquidity traps, then it would make the case for other radical changes less compelling.
If I’m being realistic, I think that if the first sentence of this post turns out to be true, the chances of any of these radical changes being adopted before the next liquidity trap episode are very small. A period of strong growth will be sufficient for policy makers to pretend that the slow recovery from the financial crisis was either a one-off or the best that could be done in the circumstances. Instead I suspect that as the economy moves ever closer to its pre-crisis trend, the demand group of economists will convince more of the supply group that they were wrong. This will give greater credibility to the idea that radical changes to policy are required, and each alternative will receive greater analysis and probably greater support amongst economists by the time the next liquidity trap episode occurs.