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Mundell-Fleming, Independent Central Banks, Inflation and Openness

Bucknell's Academic West (Bertrand Library in the background)

Teaching international finance this semester, after a long while. At Utah I taught mostly intermediate macro and Latin American Development for undergrads (and macro and history of thought for graduate students), and the eventual elective. But here the course was up for grabs, so to speak. Decided to use Peter Montiel's International Macroeconomics, since his books always provide competent presentations of the mainstream views, plus having worked at the IMF and World Bank, he always tries to cover real problems with plenty of developing country examples.

The limitation of the book is, as it should be expected, that the mainstream analytical view is, as Montiel's (p. x) says: "a generalized and modernized [sic] version of the original Mundell-Fleming model." The book does present in the last chapter the 'modern' intertemporal approach to the current account. In a later post I'll discuss the limitations of the Mundell-Fleming model, but for those interested check this paper by Serrano and Summa. In other words, Montiel's book can present the mainstream views, but lacks any critical perspective, which is not uncommon, but certainly problematic given the poor state of the mainstream understanding of how the economy works.

It is illustrative of the lack of alternatives in the book, the presentation of the relation between openness and inflation. Montiel's follows the evidence on an inverse relation between openness (that can be measured in many ways: import share, imports plus exports over GDP, etc.) and inflation presented in David Romer's well-known paper (see here). Montiel argues that in closed economies governments might tend to run fiscal deficits, that if monetized, would lead to inflation. In a more open economy, the higher deficits and inflation would lead to higher rates of interest, since international creditors faced with a risky government would demand a higher premium. In this context, "the higher interest rates that the government has to pay would tend to discourage excessively expansionary fiscal policies, thus reducing pressures on central banks to expand the money supply." If the central bank is more autonomous or independent from the Treasury then you should expect also less inflation (that would be Bernanke's explanation for the Great Moderation; here).

Many problems, as you can see. Yes, for Montiel inflation is caused by excess demand (fiscal deficits) and by increasing money supply, which seems to be what the central bank controls (let alone that all central banks control really the rate of interest). Worse, in a sense, is the notion that fiscal deficits in domestic currency (presumably, since nothing is said), may cause foreign investors to punish the government. Note that what should have investors concerned would be the current account surplus (which provides foreign reserves) and the amount of foreign reserves held by the central bank. The evidence on interest rates and fiscal deficits, by the way, is less than forthcoming for Montiel's story (see here).

A simple alternative suggests that inflation more often than not is caused by cost pressures, rather than excess demand, and that two of the main sources of cost pressures are the prices of imported goods and wage pressures. In a more open economy, in which firms are faced with competition from foreign firms, and workers might be afraid of losing their jobs, then wage resistance might be subdued. Note that over the last few decades unionization rates have declined and that also constrains the ability of workers to demand higher wages (see here). In this case, lower inflation in the globalized economy has been predicated on a weaker labor force that faces more international competition, and is more willing to accept stagnant wages. Inequality and stagnant wages, rather then well-behaved governments and independent central banks are behind the Great Moderation in this story.

Two ex-graduate students of mine, Perry and Cline (yes, someone was paying attention after all), teamed up and provided some empirical evidence in favor of the alternative story (go here). If you want to see alternative views on inflation, implicit in this discussion, go to the linked posts and papers here.

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