These are exciting times. Europe is in disarray, unable to cope with a crisis requiring adjustments in relative prices, wages, and incomes that have been rendered impossible by a monetary policy that has produced almost no growth in nominal GDP in the Eurozone since 2008, placing an intolerable burden on the Eurozone’s weakest economies. The required monetary easing by the European Central Bank is unacceptable to Germany, so the process of disintegration continues. The US, showing signs of gradual recovery in the winter and early spring, remains too anemic to shake off the depressing effects of the worsening situation in Europe. With US fiscal policy effectively stalemated until after the election, the only policy-making institution still in play is the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve. The recent track record of the FOMC can hardly inspire much confidence in its judgment, but it’s all we’ve got. Yesterday’s stock market rally shows that the markets, despite many earlier disappointments, have still not given up on the FOMC. But how many more disappointments can they withstand?
In today’s Financial Times, Peter Fisher (head of fixed income at BlackRock) makes the case (“Fed would risk diminishing returns with further ‘QE’”) against a change in policy by the Fed. Fisher lists four possible policy rationales for further easing of monetary policy by the Fed: 1) the “bank liquidity” rationale, 2) the “asset price” rationale, 3) the “credit channel” rationale, and 4) the “radical monetarist” rationale.
Fisher dismisses 1), because banks are awash in excess reserves from previous bouts of monetary easing. I agree, and that’s why the Fed should stop paying banks interest on reserves. He dismisses 2) because earlier bouts of monetary easing raised asset prices but had only very limited success in stimulating increased output.
While [the Fed] did drive asset prices higher for a few months, there was little follow-through in economic activity in 2011. This approach provides little more than a bridging operation and the question remains: a bridge to what?
This is not a persuasive critique. Increased asset prices reflected a partial recovery in expectations of future growth in income and earnings. A credible monetary policy with a clearly articulated price level of NGDP target would have supported expectations of higher growth than the anemic growth since 2009, in which asset prices would have risen correspondingly higher, above the levels in 2007, which we have still not reached again.
Fisher rejects 3), the idea “that if the Fed holds down long-term interest rates it will stimulate private credit creation and, thus, economic expansion.” Implementing this idea, via “operation twist” implies taking short-term Treasuries out of the market and replacing them with longer-term Treasuries, but doing so denies “banks the core asset on which they build their balance sheets,” thus impairing the provision of credit by the banking system instead of promoting it.
Finally Fisher rejects 4), “the idea more central bank liabilities will eventually translate into ‘too much money chasing too few goods and services’ at least so as to avoid a fall in the general price level.” Fisher asks:
What assets would the Fed buy? More Treasuries? Would the Fed embark on such a radical course in a presidential election year?
Perhaps the Fed could buy foreign currencies, engineer a much weaker dollar and, thereby, stimulate inflation and growth. Would the rest of the world permit this? I doubt it. They would probably respond in kind and we would all have a real currency war. Nor is it clear the US external sector is large enough to import enough inflation to make a difference. If energy and commodity prices soared, would American consumers “chase” consumption opportunities or would they suppress consumption and trigger a recession? Recent experience suggests the latter. How much “chasing behaviour” would we get in a recession? Engineering a dollar collapse would be to play with fire and gasoline. It might create inflation or it might create a depression.
These are concerns that have been expressed before, especially in astute and challenging comments by David Pearson to many of my posts on this blog. They are not entirely misplaced, but I don’t think that they are weighty enough to undermine the case for monetary easing, especially monetary easing tied to an explicit price level or NGDP target. As I pointed out in a previous post, Ralph Hawtrey addressed the currency-war argument 80 years ago in the middle of the Great Depression, and demolished it. FDR’s 40-percent devaluation of the dollar in 1933, triggering the fastest four-month expansion in US history, prematurely aborted by the self-inflicted wound of the National Recovery Administration, provides definitive empirical evidence against the currency-war objection. As for the fear that monetary easing and currency depreciation would lead to an upward spiral of energy and commodity prices that would cause a retrenchment of consumer spending, thereby triggering a relapse into recession, that is certainly a risk. But if you believe that we are in a recession with output and employment below the potential output and employment that the economy could support, you would have to be awfully confident that that scenario is the most likely result of monetary easing in order not to try it.
The point of tying monetary expansion to an explicit price level or spending target is precisely to provide a nominal anchor for expectations. That nominal anchor would provide a barrier against the kind of runaway increase in energy and commodity prices that would supposedly follow from a commitment to use monetary policy to achieve a price-level or spending target. Hawtrey’s immortal line about crying “fire, fire” in Noah’s flood is still all too apt.