Nominal GDP (NGDP) targeting as a monetary policy rule was first proposed in the 1980s, the most prominent proponent being Bennett McCallum. The NGDP target was a direct descendant of the money growth target - Milton Friedman's proposal from 1968. Of course, money growth targeting was adopted by many central banks in the world in the 1970s and 1980s. It's rare to hear central bankers mention monetary aggregates in public these days. Why? Constant money growth rules failed miserably, as one central building block of the quantity theory approach - the stable money demand function - does not exist.
McCallum's reasoning (and here I may be taking some liberties - I'm working from memory) was basically the following. We all know that MV=PY. That's the equation of exchange - an identity. M is the nominal money stock, however measured, P is the price level, and Y is real GDP. Thus, PY is nominal income. V is the velocity of money, which is defined to be the ratio of nominal income to the money stock. That's what makes that equation an identity. A typical quantity theory approach to money demand (for example read some of Lucas's money demand work) is to assume that the income elasticity of money demand is one, so from the equation of exchange, the theory of money demand reduces to a theory that explains V. Friedman would have liked V to be predictable. The problem is that it's not. Technology changes. Regulations change. Large unanticipated events happen in financial markets and payments systems. As a result, there is considerable unpredictable variation in V, at both low and high frequencies.
So, McCallum looked at the equation of exchange and thought: The central bank controls M, but if M is growing at a constant rate and V is highly variable, then PY is bouncing all over the place. Why not make PY grow at a constant rate, and have the central bank move M to absorb the fluctuations in V? As economists we can disagree about how growth in nominal income will be split between growth in P and growth in Y, depending in part on our views about the sources and extent of non-neutralities of money. But, McCallum reasoned, NGDP targeting seems agnostic. According to him, we don't really have to fuss with the complications of what the non-neutralities are, or whether non-monetary factors are to some extent driving business cycles.
Central bankers and macroeconomists did not pay much attention to NGDP targeting. To the extent that central banks adopted explicit policy rules, those were inflation targets, for example in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere. The reasoning behind this seemed to be that, central banks get in trouble when they become overly focused on "real" goals, e.g. the level of real GDP, the unemployment rate, etc. In an overconfident attempt to "stimulate" the economy, the central bank may just stimulate inflation, and then have to backtrack. Producing a sustained low inflation rate when that rate has been high for a long time produces a recession, as in the U.S. in 1981-82. But if the central bank commits to a low inflation rate forever, we can get the benefits of low inflation and less real instability to boot.
An early 1990s development was the Taylor rule, which became a component of New Keynesian models, and crept into the language of central bankers. American central bankers find the Taylor rule particularly appealing. Their past behavior appears to fit the rule, so it does not dictate they do anything different. Great! As well, the Taylor rule seems to conform to the intent of Congress's dual mandate.
The Taylor rule takes as given the operating procedure of the Fed, under which the FOMC determines a target for the overnight federal funds rate, and the job of the New York Fed people who manage the System Open Market Account (SOMA) is to hit that target. The Taylor rule, if the FOMC follows it, simply dictates how the fed funds rate target should be set every six weeks, given new information.
So, from the mid-1980s until 2008, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. Just as the inflation targeters envisioned, inflation was not only low, but we had a Great Moderation in the United States. Ben Bernanke, who had long been a supporter of inflation targeting, became Fed Chair in 2006, and I think it was widely anticipated that he would push for inflation targeting with the US Congress.
In 2008, of course, the ball game changed. If you thought economists and policymakers were in agreement about how the world works, or about what appropriate policy is, maybe you were surprised. One idea that has been pushed recently is a revived proposal for NGDP targeting. The economists pushing this are bloggers - Scott Sumner and David Beckworth, among others. Some influential people like the idea, including Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Charles Evans.
In its current incarnation, here's how NGDP targeting would work, according to Scott Sumner. The Fed would set a target path for future NGDP. For example, the Fed could announce that NGDP will grow along a 5% growth path forever (say 2% for inflation and 3% for long run real GDP growth). Of course, the Fed cannot just wish for a 5% growth path in NGDP and have it happen. All the Fed can actually do is issue Fed liabilities in exchange for assets, set the interest rate on reserves, and lend at the discount window. One might imagine that Sumner would have the Fed conform to its existing operating procedure and move the fed funds rate target - Taylor rule fashion - in response to current information on where NGDP is relative to its target. Not so. Sumner's recommendation is that we create a market in claims contingent on future NGDP - a NGDP futures market - and that the Fed then conduct open market operations to achieve a target for the price of one of these claims.
So, what do we make of this? If achieving a NGDP target is a good thing, then variability about trend in NGDP must be bad. So how have we been doing?
There's another interesting feature of the first chart. Note that, during the 1970s, variability in NGDP about trend was considerably smaller than for real GDP. But after the 1981-82 recession and before the 2008-09 recession, detrended NGDP hugs detrended real GDP closely. But the first period is typically judged to be a period of bad monetary policy and the latter a period of good monetary policy.
Here's another problem. There is a substantial source of variability in real and nominal GDP that we rarely think about, as we are always staring at seasonally adjusted data. Indeed, the Bureau of Economic Analysis makes it really hard to stare at unadjusted National Income Accounts data. I couldn't unearth it, and had to resort to Statistics Canada which, in their well-ordered Canadian fashion, puts all of these numbers where you expect to find them. The next chart shows the natural logs of Canadian nominal GDP, seasonally adjusted and unadjusted.
The first chart looks roughly like what you would see for the same period in the US. Typical deviations from trend at business cycle frequencies range from 2% to 5%. In the unadjusted series, though, the deviations from trend are substantially larger - typically from 5% to 10%.
The second chart is interesting, as you can see both the seasonal variation and the cyclical variation in NGDP. If we want just the percentage deviations of unadjusted NGDP from seasonally adjusted NGDP, we get the next chart.
So, if variability about trend in NGDP is a bad thing, why should we not worry about the seasonal variability? I can't see how any answer that the NGDP targeters would give us to that question could make any sense. But they should have a shot at it.
The monetary models we have to work with tell us principally that monetary policy is about managing price distortions. For example, a ubiquitous implication of monetary models is that a Friedman rule is optimal. The Friedman rule (that's not the constant money growth rule - this comes from Friedman's "Optimum Quantity of Money") dictates that monetary policy be conducted so that the nominal interest rate is always zero. Of course we know that no central bank does that, and we have good reasons to think that there are other frictions in the economy which imply that we should depart from the Friedman rule. However, the lesson from the Friedman rule argument is that the nominal interest rate reflects a distortion and that, once we take account of other frictions, we should arrive at an optimal policy rule that will imply that the nominal interest rate should be smooth. One of the frictions some macroeconomists like to think about is price stickiness. In New Keynesian models, price stickiness leads to relative price distortions that monetary policy can correct.
If monetary policy is about managing price distortions, what does that have to do with targeting some nominal quantity? Any model I know about, if subjected to a NGDP targeting rule, would yield a suboptimal allocation of resources.
The idea that it is important to have the central bank target a NGDP futures price as part of the implementation of NGDP targeting seems both unnecessary and risky. Current central banking practice works well in the United States in part because the Fed (pre-financial crisis at least) is absorbing day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month variation in financial market activity. Some of this variation is predictable - having to do with the day of the week, reserve requirement rules, or the month of the year. Some of it is unpredictable, resulting for example from shocks in the payments system. I think there are benefits to financial market participants in having a predictable overnight interest rate, though I don't think anyone has written down a rigorous rationale for that view. Who knows what would happen in overnight markets if the Fed attempted to peg the price of NGDP futures rather than the overnight fed funds rate? I don't have any idea, and neither does Scott Sumner. Sumner seems to think that such a procedure would add extra commitment to the policy regime. But the policy rule already implies commitment - the central bank is judged by how close it comes to the target path. What else should we want?
Finally, there is no guarantee that the central bank could always hit a given NGDP target, even if it wanted to. The reason some prominent Old Keynesians like the NGDP rule is that they think they can't lose with it. Suppose we are Old Keynesians, and our view is that NGDP is now 10% below where it should be. So, being Old Keyensians, we think monetary policy should be more accommodative. Even if all we accomplish is a 10% increase in prices, that will deflate some private debts, and at worst redistribute wealth toward those who were hurt by the recession. Good deal! The problem is that we are in a more severe liquidity trap than even Paul Krugman wants to think about. The only policy instrument that currently matters is the interest rate on reserves (IROR). If the Fed moves the IROR, or signals how it will move the IROR in the future, that matters. Otherwise, there is no effect on any quantities or prices. Making promises about future NGDP cannot help the Fed do a better job of making promises about the future path for the IROR, so NGDP targeting appears to be of no use in our current predicament.