Selgin Takes Down Taylor on NGDP Targeting

A couple of weeks ago (November 18, 2011), responding to the recent groundswell of interest in NGDP targeting, John Taylor wrote a critique of NGDP targeting on his blog (“More on Nominal GDP Targeting”). Taylor made two main points in his critique. First, noting that recent proposals for NGDP targeting (in contrast to earlier proposals advanced in the 1980s) propose targeting the level (or more precisely a trend line) of NGDP rather than the growth rate of NGDP, Taylor conceded that in recoveries from recessions there is a case for allowing NGDP to grow faster than the long-run trend. Strict rate targeting would not accommodate faster than normal NGDP growth in recoveries, level targeting would. However, Taylor argued that level targeting has a corresponding drawback.

[I]f an inflation shock takes the price level and thus NGDP above the target NGDP path, then the Fed will have to take sharp tightening action which would cause real GDP to fall much more than with inflation targetting and most likely result in abandoning the NGDP target.

Taylor’s second point was that NGDP targeting is not an adequate rule, because it allows the monetary authorities too much discretion in choosing how to hit the specified target. Taylor regards this as a dangerous concession of arbitrary authority to the central bank.

NGDP targeting may seem like a policy rule, but it does not give much quantitative operational guidance about what the central bank should do with the instruments. It is highly discretionary. Like the wolf dressed up as a sheep, it is discretion in rules clothing.

In reply Scott Sumner wrote a good defense of NGDP targeting, focusing mainly on the forward-looking orientation of NGDP targeting in contrast to the backward-looking orientation of the rule favored by Taylor. Further, Taylor’s criticism is beside the point, having nothing to do with NGDP targeting; it’s all about level targeting versus growth targeting. Scott also points out that his own version of NGDP targeting precisely specifies what the central bank is supposed to do to implement its objective, avoiding entirely Taylor’s charge of giving too much discretion to the central bank.

All well and good, but no coup de grace.

It took almost two weeks, but the coup de grace was finally administered with admirable clarity and efficiency at 3:58 PM on December 1, 2011 by George Selgin on the Free Banking Blog. Selgin’s main point is that it is illegitimate for Taylor to posit an inflation shock to the price level, because inflation shocks don’t just happen, they must be caused by some other, more fundamental, cause. That cause can either be classified as a (negative) shift in aggregate supply or a (positive) shift in aggregate demand. If the shift affected aggregate supply, meaning that aggregate demand has not changed, there is no particular reason to suppose that any change has occurred in NGDP. So there is no reason for the Fed to tighten monetary policy to counteract the increase in the price level. On the other hand, if the inflation shock was caused by an increase in aggregate demand, then NGDP has certainly increased, and a tightening action would be required, but the cause of the tightening would have been the targeting of NGDP,  but the failure to do so.

Now in fairness to Professor Taylor, one could interpret his point in a different way: Central bankers are not infallible. Try as they might, they will not succeed in hitting their NGDP targets every time. But each miss will require an offsetting change in the opposite direction. The result of random errors in targeting, may be increased instability in NGDP. But if that was what Taylor meant, he should have said so. Selgin identifies the source of Taylor’s confusion as follows:

But lurking below the surface of Professor Taylor’s nonsensical critique is, I sense, a more fundamental problem, consisting of his implicit treatment of stabilization of aggregate demand or spending, not as a desirable end in itself, but as a rough-and-ready (if not seriously flawed) means by which the Fed might attempt to fulfill its so-called dual mandate–a mandate calling for it to concern itself with both the control of inflation and the stability of employment and real output.

What Selgin is arguing for is a policy targeting a (nearly) constant level of NGDP, taking seriously the vague (and essentially non-operational) goal, mentioned by Hayek in his early work, of a constant level of monetary expenditure.

[A]lthough it is true that unsound monetary policy tends to contribute to undesirable and unnecessary fluctuations in prices and output, it does not follow that the soundest conceivable policy is one that eliminates such fluctuations altogether. The goal of monetary policy ought, rather, to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output–that is, departures of output from its full-information level–while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.”

I find Selgin’s formulation really interesting, because a few months ago I was trying to think through the following problem. Suppose there is a supply shock that causes real output to fall. Unless the supply shock is caused by a reduced supply of labor, the real wage must fall. Under a policy of stabilizing nominal income, the nominal wage as well as the real wage would (or at least could) fall if, as a result of the supply shock, labor’s share of factor income also declined. But a falling nominal wage would tend to cause inefficient (involuntary) unemployment, because workers, observing unexpectedly reduced wages, would therefore not accept the relatively low wage offers, becoming unemployed in the mistaken expectation of finding better paying jobs while unemployed. A policy of stabilizing nominal wages would avoid inefficient (involuntary) unemployment, which is an argument for making stable wages (as advocated by Hawtrey and Earl Thompson) rather than stable nominal income the goal of economic policy.  Thus, it seems to me that from the standpoint of optimal employment policy, a policy of stabilizing wages may do better than a policy of stabilizing NGDP.  Of course, if one adopts a policy of targeting a sufficiently high growth rate of NGDP, the likelihood that nominal wage would fall as a result of a supply shock would be correspondingly reduced.

I also want to comment further on Taylor’s criticism of NGDP targeting as unacceptably discretionary, but that will have to wait for another day.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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