The FOMC, after over four years of overly tight monetary policy, seems to be feeling its way toward an easier policy stance. But will it do any good? Unfortunately, there is reason to doubt that it will. The FOMC statement pledges to continue purchasing $85 billion a month of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities and to keep interest rates at current low levels until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5% or the inflation rate rises above 2.5%. In other words, the Fed is saying that it will tolerate an inflation rate only marginally higher than the current target for inflation before it begins applying the brakes to the expansion. Here is how the New York Times reported on the Fed announcement.
The Federal Reserve said Wednesday it planned to hold short-term interest rates near zero so long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5 percent, reinforcing its commitment to improve labor market conditions.
The Fed also said that it would continue in the new year its monthly purchases of $85 billion in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, the second prong of its effort to accelerate economic growth by reducing borrowing costs.
But Fed officials still do not expect the unemployment rate to fall below the new target for at least three more years, according to forecasts also published Wednesday, and they chose not to expand the Fed’s stimulus campaign.
In fairness to the FOMC, the Fed, although technically independent, must operate within an implicit consensus on what kind of decisions it can take, its freedom of action thereby being circumscribed in the absence of a clear signal of support from the administration for a substantial departure from the terms of the implicit consensus. For the Fed to substantially raise its inflation target would risk a political backlash against it, and perhaps precipitate a deep internal split within the Fed’s leadership. At the depth of the financial crisis and in its immediate aftermath, perhaps Chairman Bernanke, if he had been so inclined, might have been able to effect a drastic change in monetary policy, but that window of opportunity closed quickly once the economy stopped contracting and began its painfully slow pseudo recovery.
As I have observed a number of times (here, here, and here), the paradigm for the kind of aggressive monetary easing that is now necessary is FDR’s unilateral decision to take the US off the gold standard in 1933. But FDR was a newly elected President with a massive electoral mandate, and he was making decisions in the midst of the worst economic crisis in modern times. Could an unelected technocrat (or a collection of unelected technocrats) take such actions on his (or their) own? From the get-go, the Obama administration showed no inclination to provide any significant input to the formulation of monetary policy, either out of an excess of scruples about Fed independence or out of a misguided belief that monetary policy was powerless to affect the economy when interest rates were close to zero.
Stephen Williamson, on his blog, consistently gives articulate expression to the doctrine of Fed powerlessness. In a post yesterday, correctly anticipating that the Fed would continue its program of buying mortgage backed securities and Treasuries, and would tie its policy to numerical triggers relating to unemployment, Williamson disdainfully voiced his skepticism that the Fed’s actions would have any positive effect on the real performance of the economy, while registering his doubts that the Fed would be any more successful in preventing inflation from getting out of hand while attempting to reduce unemployment than it was in the 1970s.
It seems to me that Williamson reaches this conclusion based on the following premises. The Fed has little or no control over interest rates or inflation, and the US economy is not far removed from its equilibrium growth path. But Williamson also believes that the Fed might be able to increase inflation, and that that would be a bad thing if the Fed were actually to do so. The Fed can’t do any good, but it could do harm.
Williamson is fairly explicit in saying that he doubts the ability of positive QE to stimulate, and negative QE (which, I guess, might be called QT) to dampen real or nominal economic activity.
Short of a theory of QE – or more generally a serious theory of the term structure of interest rates – no one has a clue what the effects are, if any. Until someone suggests something better, the best guess is that QE is irrelevant. Any effects you think you are seeing are either coming from somewhere else, or have to do with what QE signals for the future policy rate. The good news is that, if it’s irrelevant, it doesn’t do any harm. But if the FOMC thinks it works when it doesn’t, that could be a problem, in that negative QE does not tighten, just as positive QE does not ease.
But Williamson seems a bit uncertain about the effects of “forward guidance” i.e., the Fed’s commitment to keep interest rates low for an extended period of time, or until a trigger is pulled e.g., unemployment falls below a specified level. This is where Williamson sees a real potential for mischief.
(1)To be well-understood, the triggers need to be specified in a very simple form. As such it seems as likely that the Fed will make a policy error if it commits to a trigger as if it commits to a calendar date. The unemployment rate seems as good a variable as any to capture what is going on in the real economy, but as such it’s pretty bad. It’s hardly a sufficient statistic for everything the Fed should be concerned with.
(2)This is a bad precedent to set, for two reasons. First, the Fed should not be setting numerical targets for anything related to the real side of the dual mandate. As is well-known, the effect of monetary policy on real economic activity is transient, and the transmission process poorly understood. It would be foolish to pretend that we know what the level of aggregate economic activity should be, or that the Fed knows how to get there. Second, once you convince people that triggers are a good idea in this “unusual” circumstance, those same people will wonder what makes other circumstances “normal.” Why not just write down a Taylor rule for the Fed, and send the FOMC home? Again, our knowledge of how the economy works, and what future contingencies await us, is so bad that it seems optimal, at least to me, that the Fed make it up as it goes along.
I agree that a fixed trigger is a very blunt instrument, and it is hard to know what level to set it at. In principle, it would be preferable if the trigger were not pulled automatically, but only as a result of some exercise of discretionary judgment by the part of the monetary authority; except that the exercise of discretion may undermine the expectational effect of setting a trigger. Williamson’s second objection strikes me as less persuasive than the first. It is at least misleading, and perhaps flatly wrong, to say that the effect of monetary policy on real economic activity is transient. The standard argument for the ineffectiveness of monetary policy involves an exercise in which the economy starts off at equilibrium. If you take such an economy and apply a monetary stimulus to it, there is a plausible (but not necessarily unexceptionable) argument that the long-run effect of the stimulus will be nil, and any transitory gain in output and employment may be offset (or outweighed) by a subsequent transitory loss. But if the initial position is out of equilibrium, I am unaware of any plausible, let alone compelling, argument that monetary stimulus would not be effective in hastening the adjustment toward equilibrium. In a trivial sense, the effect of monetary policy is transient inasmuch as the economy would eventually reach an equilibrium even without monetary stimulus. However, unlike the case in which monetary stimulus is applied to an economy in equilibrium, applying monetary policy to an economy out of equilibrium can produce short-run gains that aren’t wiped out by subsequent losses. I am not sure how to interpret the rest of Williamson’s criticism. One might almost interpret him as saying that he would favor a policy of targeting nominal GDP (which bears a certain family resemblance to the Taylor rule), a policy that would also address some of the other concerns Williamson has about the Fed’s choice of triggers, except that Williamson is already on record in opposition to NGDP targeting.
In reply to a comment on this post, Williamson made the following illuminating observation:
Read James Tobin’s paper, “How Dead is Keynes?” referenced in my previous post. He was writing in June 1977. The unemployment rate is 7.2%, the cpi inflation rate is 6.7%, and he’s complaining because he thinks the unemployment rate is disastrously high. He wants more accommodation. Today, I think we understand the reasons that the unemployment rate was high at the time, and we certainly don’t think that monetary policy was too tight in mid-1977, particularly as inflation was about to take off into the double-digit range. Today, I don’t think the labor market conditions we are looking at are the result of sticky price/wage inefficiencies, or any other problem that monetary policy can correct.
The unemployment rate in 1977 was 7.2%, at least one-half a percentage point less than the current rate, and the cpi inflation rate was 6.7% nearly 5% higher than the current rate. Just because Tobin was overly disposed toward monetary expansion in 1977 when unemployment was less and inflation higher than they are now, it does not follow that monetary expansion now would be as misguided as it was in 1977. Williamson is convinced that the labor market is now roughly in equilibrium, so that monetary expansion would lead us away from, not toward, equilibrium. Perhaps it would, but most informed observers simply don’t share Williamson’s intuition that the current state of the economy is not that far from equilibrium. Unless you buy that far-from-self-evident premise, the case for monetary expansion is hard to dispute. Nevertheless, despite his current unhappiness, I am not so sure that Williamson will be as upset with what the actual policy that the Fed is going to implement as he seems to think he will be. The Fed is moving in the right direction, but is only taking baby steps.
PS I see that Williamson has now posted his reaction to the Fed’s statement. Evidently, he is not pleased. Perhaps I will have something more to say about that tomorrow.