On The Keynesian Lunacy Of Targeting Outcomes

Tyler Durden's picture

The pages of the financial press overflow with opinions on what targets would make the world safer: what ratio of risk-weighted-assets banks should target, what RoE targets they would be safe at, what inflation target the central bank should aim for, or what growth target is appropriate for China. When SocGen's Dylan Grice was asked if he was a fan of the idea of nominal GDP targets! He snapped he is not and thought it "a terrible idea". As he opines, today’s various issues – the euro, China’s economy, over-indebtedness – are the cumulative unintended consequences of such past targets, and the naïve presumption that complexity can be commanded. Even mildly complex systems, any outcome is the wrong thing to target, with the process being where the focus should be. Expressing how little time he has for macroeconomics, reasoning that it’s obsessed with the targeting of interest rates, GDP, inflation, unemployment, exchange rates, et cetera, as though such a thing was possible without unintended consequences; Grice notes that Austrian economists understood this too. Ludwig von Mises distilled social phenomena to the simple observation that "man acts purposefully".

Dylan Grice - The tyranny of targets: process, outcome and the complexity of it all

The pages of the financial press overflow with opinions on what targets would make the world safer: what ratio of risk-weighted-assets banks should target, what RoE targets they would be safe at, what inflation target the central bank should aim for, or what growth target is appropriate for China. Someone even asked me if I was a fan of the idea of nominal GDP targets! I’m not. It’s a terrible idea. Today’s various issues – the euro, China’s economy, over-indebtedness – are the cumulative unintended consequences of such past targets, and the naïve presumption that complexity can be commanded.

 

All outcomes are caused by an underlying process.

 

But I’d argue that for even mildly complex systems, any outcome is the wrong thing to target. As we just saw, targeting one outcome of such a process changes that process, and changing the process subsequently changes all the other outcomes. In any kind of complex system where the underlying outcome generating processes aren’t well understood – whether a company, or a society – the effects of changing the process won’t be well understood either. Unintended consequences must ensue.

 

Yet even a cursory glance at the news shows ‘outcome targeting’ to be endemic: in response to the damage caused by Basle II, we’re given the ‘new and improved’ targets of Basle III (now already being traduced); the insurance industry now faces Solvency II targets; investors fret that banks won’t be able to hit their RoE targets; investors wonder if China will be able to hit its 8% GDP growth target; most major central banks target some sort of CPI inflation rate.

 

This is lunacy. How much damage has already been caused by banks that overreached themselves in trying to meet their RoE targets? How lopsided and capital destructive has China’s insistence on hitting its breakneck GDP growth targets at all costs been? How much of today’s painful credit deflation was caused by the credit inflation central banks pumped up while aiming for their CPI inflation target? In targeting these outcomes, underlying processes were distorted. Unforeseen outcomes resulted. But regulators continue to prescribe capital targets, banks continue to target RoE, China continues to target a growth rate, and central banks continue with ever more experimental methods in defence of their inflation targets. Indeed, today in Europe we’re seeing the unintended consequences of imposing outcomes (i.e. an exchange rate) on the eurozone economies.

 

Regular readers know how little time I have for macroeconomics. One reason is that it’s obsessed with the targeting of interest rates, GDP, inflation, unemployment, exchange rates, et cetera, as though such a thing was possible without unintended consequences. Since such variables are actually outcomes of a complex process, most macroeconomics seems to me to be an embarrassingly naïve study of outcomes which completely neglects process.

 

I’m not sure when this started. Adam Smith’s observation on the ‘invisible hand’ of selfinterested but mutually advantageous behaviour might have been our species’ first articulation of a complex adaptive process. Austrian economists understood this too. Ludwig von Mises distilled social phenomena to the simple observation that ‚man acts purposefully,? while Hayek coined the phrase ‚spontaneous order? to describe the market. And all this before complexity had been given its name by mathematicians.

The thing is, Adam Smith and the Austrians didn’t fall into the trap of focusing on outcomes. And we’re trying to avoid that trap too.