Posts Tagged 'Bernanke'

How Did Bernanke Scare the Markets?

On Wednesday Ben Bernanke appeared before the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress to give his semi-annual report to Congress on the Economic Outlook. The S&P 500 opened the day about 1% higher than at Tuesday’s close, but by early afternoon had already given back all their gains, before closing 1% lower than the day before, an interday swing of 2%, pretty clearly caused by Bernanke’s testimony. The Nikkei average fell by 7%. Bernanke announced no major change in monetary policy, but he did hint that the FOMC was considering scaling back its asset purchases “in light of incoming information.” So what was it that Bernanke said that was so scary?

Let’s have a look.

Bernanke began with a summary of economic conditions, giving himself two cheers for recent improvements in the job market. He continued by explaining how, despite some minimal and painfully slow improvements, the job market remains in bad shape:

Despite this improvement, the job market remains weak overall: The unemployment rate is still well above its longer-run normal level, rates of long-term unemployment are historically high, and the labor force participation rate has continued to move down. Moreover, nearly 8 million people are working part time even though they would prefer full-time work. High rates of unemployment and underemployment are extraordinarily costly: Not only do they impose hardships on the affected individuals and their families, they also damage the productive potential of the economy as a whole by eroding workers’ skills and–particularly relevant during this commencement season–by preventing many young people from gaining workplace skills and experience in the first place. The loss of output and earnings associated with high unemployment also reduces government revenues and increases spending on income-support programs, thereby leading to larger budget deficits and higher levels of public debt than would otherwise occur.

Bernanke then shifted to the inflation situation:

Consumer price inflation has been low. The price index for personal consumption expenditures rose only 1 percent over the 12 months ending in March, down from about 2-1/4 percent during the previous 12 months. This slow rate of inflation partly reflects recent declines in consumer energy prices, but price inflation for other consumer goods and services has also been subdued. Nevertheless, measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable and continue to run in the narrow ranges seen over the past several years. Over the next few years, inflation appears likely to run at or below the 2 percent rate that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) judges to be most consistent with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate to foster maximum employment and stable prices.

In other words, the job market, despite minimal improvements, is a disaster, and inflation is below target, and inflation expectations “continue to in the narrow ranges seen over the past several years.” What does that mean? It means that since the financial crisis of 2008, inflation expectations have consistently remained at their lowest levels in a half century. Why is any increase in inflation expectations above today’s abnormally low levels unacceptable? Bernanke then says that inflation appears likely to run at or below the 2% rate that FOMC believes is most consistent with the Fed’s mandate to foster maximum employment and stable prices. Actually it appears likely that inflation is likely to run below the 2% rate, perhaps by 50 to 100 basis points. For Bernanke to disguise the likelihood that inflation will persistently fail to reach the Fed’s own nominal 2% target, by artfully saying that inflation is likely to run “at or below” the 2% target, is a deliberate deception. Thus, although he is unwilling to say so explicitly, Bernanke makes it clear that he and the FOMC are expecting, whether happily or not is irrelevant, inflation to continue indefinitely at less than the 2% annual target, and will do nothing to increase it.

You get the picture? The job market, five and a half years after the economy started its downturn, is in a shambles. Inflation is running well below the nominal 2% target, and is expected to remain there for as far as the eye can see. And what is the FOMC preoccupied with? Winding down its asset purchases “in light of incoming information.” The incoming information is clearly saying – no it’s shouting – that the asset purchases ought to be stepped up, not wound down. Does Bernanke believe that, under the current circumstances, an increased rate of inflation would not promote a faster recovery in the job market? If so, on the basis of what economic theory has he arrived at that belief? With inflation persistently below the Fed’s own target, he owes Congress and the American people an explanation of why he believes that faster inflation would not hasten the recovery in employment, and why he and the FOMC are not manifestly in violation of their mandate to promote maximum employment consistent with price stability. But he is obviously unwilling or unable to provide one.

Why did Bernanke scare the markets? Well, maybe, just maybe, it was because his testimony was so obviously incoherent.

Maybe Robert Waldmann Should Calm Down

Robert Waldmann is unhappy with Matthew Yglesias for being hopeful that, Shinzo Abe, just elected prime minister of Japan, may be about to make an important contribution to the world economy, and to economic science, by prodding the Bank of Japan to increase its inflation target and by insisting that the BOJ actually hit the new target. Since I don’t regularly read Waldmann’s blog (not because it’s not worth reading — I usually enjoy reading it when I get to it – I just can’t keep up with that many blogs), I’m not sure why Waldmann finds Yglesias’s piece so annoying. OK, Waldmann’s a Keynesian and prefers fiscal to monetary policy, but so is Paul Krugman, and he thinks that monetary policy can be effective even at the zero lower bound. At any rate this is how Waldmann responds to Yglesias:

Ben Bernanke too has declared a policy of unlimited quantitative easing and increased inflation (new target only 2.5% but that’s higher than current inflation).  The declaration (which was a surprise) had essentially no effect on prices for medium term treasuries, TIPS or the breakeven.

I was wondering when you would comment, since you have confidently asserted again and again that if only the FOMC did what it just did, expected inflation would jump and then GDP growth would increase.

However, instead of noting the utter total failure of your past predictions (and the perfect confirmation of mine) you just boldly make new predictions.

Face fact,  like conventional monetary policy (in the US the Federal Funds rate) forward guidance is pedal to the metal.   It’s long past time for you to start climbing down.

I mention this, because just yesterday I happened across another blog post about what Bernanke said after the FOMC meeting.  This post by David Altig, executive VP and research director of the Atlanta Fed, was on the macroblog. Altig points out that, despite the increase in the Fed’s inflation threshold from 2 to 2.5%, the Fed increased neither its inflation target (still 2%) nor its inflation forecast (still under 2%). All that the Fed did was to say that it won’t immediately slam on the brakes if inflation rises above 2% provided that unemployment is greater than 6.5% and inflation is less than 2.5%. That seems like a pretty marginal change in policy to me.

Also have a look at this post from earlier today by Yglesias, showing that the Japanese stock market has risen about 5.5% in the last two weeks, and about 2% in the two days since Abe’s election. Here is Yglesias’s chart showing the rise of the Nikkei over the past two weeks.

abe-nomics

In addition, here is a news story from Bloomberg about rising yields on Japanese government bonds, which are now the highest since April.

Japan‘s bonds declined, sending 20- year yields to an eight-month high, as demand ebbed at a sale of the securities and domestic shares climbed.

The sale of 1.2 trillion yen ($14.3 billion) of 20-year bonds had the lowest demand in four months. Yields on the benchmark 10-year note rose to a one-month high as Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average reached the most since April amid signs U.S. budget talks are progressing.

Finally, another item from Yglesias, a nice little graph showing the continuing close relationship between the S&P 500 and inflation expectations as approximated by the breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries, a relationship for which I have provided (in a paper available here) a theoretical explanation as well as statistical evidence that the relationship did not begin to be observed until approximately the spring of 2008 as the US economy, even before the Lehman debacle, began its steep contraction. Here’s the graph.

yglesias_S&P500

HT: Mark Thoma

UPDATE:  Added a link above to the blog post by Altig about what Bernanke meant when he announced a 2.5% inflation threshold.

The Prodigal Son Returns: The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Rediscovers Root Canal Economics

Perhaps the most interesting and influential financial journalist of the 1970s was a guy by the name of Jude Wanniski, who was an editorial writer for Wall Street Journal, from 1972 to 1978. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, and the devastating losses suffered by the Republicans in the 1974 Congressional elections, many people thought that the Republican party might not survive. The GOP certainly did not seem to offer much hope for free-market conservatives and libertarians, Richard Nixon having imposed wage-and-price controls in 1971, with the help of John Connally and Arthur Burns and enthusiastic backing from almost all Republicans. After Nixon resigned, leadership of the party was transferred to his successor, Gerald Ford, a very nice and decent fellow, whose lack of ideological conviction was symbolized by his choice of Nelson Rockefeller, an interventionist, big-government Republican if there ever was one, to serve as his Vice-President.

In this very dispirited environment for conservatives, Jude Wanniski’s editorial pieces in the Wall Street Journal and his remarkable 1978 book The Way the World Works, in which he advocated cuts in income tax rates as a cure for economic stagnation, proved to be an elixir of life for demoralized Republicans and conservatives. Wanniski was especially hard on old-fashioned Republicans and conservatives for whom balancing the federal budget had become the be all and end of all of economic policy, a doctrine that the Wall Street Journal itself had once espoused. A gifted phrase maker, Wanniski dubbed traditional Republican balanced-budget policy, root-canal economics. Instead, Wanniski adopted the across-the-board income tax cuts proposed by John Kennedy in 1963, a proposal that conservative icon Barry Goldwater had steadfastly opposed, as his model for economic policy.

Wanniski quickly won over a rising star in the Republican party, former NFL quarterback Jack Kemp, to his way of thinking.  Another acolyte was an ambitious young Georgian by the name of Newt Gingrich. In 1978, Kemp and Senator Bill Roth form Delaware (after whom the Roth IRA is named), co-authored a bill, without support from the Republican Congressional leadership, to cut income taxes across the board by 25%. Many Republicans running for Congress and the Senate in 1978 pledged to support what became known as the Kemp-Roth bill. An unexpectedly strong showing by Republicans supporting the Kemp-Roth bill in the 1978 elections encouraged Jack Kemp to consider running for President in 1980 on a platform of across-the-board tax cuts. However, when Ronald Reagan, nearly 70 years old, and widely thought, after unsuccessfully challenging Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976, to be past his prime, signed on as a supporter of the Kemp-Roth bill, Kemp bowed out of contention, endorsing Reagan for the nomination, and uniting conservatives behind the Gipper.

After his landslide victory in the 1980 election, Reagan, riding a crest of popularity, enhanced by an unsuccessful assassination attempt in the first few months of his term, was able to push the Kemp-Roth bill through Congress, despite warnings from the Democrats that steep tax cuts would cause large budget deficits. To such warnings, Jack Kemp famously responded that Republicans no longer worshiped at the altar of a balanced budget. No one cheered louder for that heretical statement by Kemp than, you guessed it, the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Fast forward to 2012, the Wall Street Journal, which never fails to invoke the memory of Ronald Reagan whenever an opportunity arises, nevertheless seems to have rediscovered the charms of root-canal economics. How else can one explain this piece of sophistry from Robert L. Pollock, a member of the group of sages otherwise known as the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal? Consider what Mr. Pollock had to say in an opinion piece on the Journal‘s website.

[T]o the extent that the United States finds itself in a precarious fiscal situation, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke shares much of the blame. Simply put, there is no way that Washington could have run the deficits it has in recent years without the active assistance of a near-zero interest rate policy. . . .

European governments finally decided to take cost-cutting steps when their borrowing costs went up. But Democrats and liberal economists use Mr. Bernanke’s low rates and willingness to buy government bonds as evidence that there’s no pressing problem here to be addressed.

This is a strange argument for high interest rates, especially coming from a self-avowed conservative. Conservatives got all bent out of shape when Obama’s Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, opined that rising gasoline prices might actually serve a useful function by inducing consumers and businesses to be more economical in their their use of gasoline. That comment was seized on by Republicans as proof that the Obama administration was seeking to increase gasoline prices as a way of reducing gasoline consumption. Now, Mr. Pollock provides us with a new argument for high interest rates: by raising the cost of borrowing, high interest rates will force the government to be more economical in its spending decisions.  Evidently, it’s wrong to suggest that an increased price will reduce gasoline consumption, but it’s fine to say that an increased interest rate will cut government spending. Go figure.

Well, here’s what Wanniski had to say about the Republican obsession with reducing government spending for its own sake:

It isn’t that Republicans don’t enjoy cutting taxes. They love it. But there is something in the Republican chemistry that causes the GOP to become hypnotized by the prospect of an imbalanced budget. Static analysis tells them taxes can’t be cut or inflation will result. They either argue for a tax hike to dampen inflation when the economy is in a boom or demand spending cuts to balance the budget when the economy is in recession.

Either way, of course, they embrace the role of Scrooge, playing into the hands of the Democrats, who know the first rule of successful politics is Never Shoot Santa Claus. The political tension in the market place of ideas must be between tax reduction and spending increases, and as long as Republicans have insisted on balanced budgets, their influence as a party has shriveled, and budgets have been imbalanced.

How’s that old root-canal economics working out for ya?

Now back to Pollock. Here’s how he explains why low interest rates may not really be helping the economy.

It would be one thing if there were widespread agreement that low rates are the right medicine for the economy. But easy money on the Bernanke scale is a heretofore untested policy, one for which the past few years of meager growth haven’t provided convincing evidence.

Fair enough. Low rates haven’t been helping the economy all that much. But the question arises: why are rates so low? Is it really all the Fed’s doing, or could it possibly have something to do with pessimism on the part of businesses and consumers about whether they will be able to sell their products or their services in the future? If it is the latter, then low interest rates may not be a symptom of easy money, but of tight money.

Pollock, of course, has a different explanation for why low interest rates are not promoting a recovery.

Economists such as David Malpass argue that low rates are actually contractionary because they cause capital to be diverted from more productive uses to less productive ones.

Oh my. What can one say about an argument like that? I have encountered Mr. Malpass before and was less than impressed by his powers of economic reasoning; I remain unimpressed. How can a low interest rate divert capital from more productive uses to less productive ones unless capital rationing is taking place? If some potential borrowers were unable to secure funding for their productive projects while other borrowers with less productive projects were able to get funding for theirs, the disappointed borrowers could have offered to borrow at increased interest rates, thereby outbidding borrowers with unproductive projects, and driving up interest rates in the process.   That is just elementary.  That interest rates are now at such low levels is more reflective of the pessimism of most potential borrowers about the projects for which they seeking funding, than of the supposed power of the Fed to determine interest rates.

So there you have it. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, transformed in the 1970s by the daring and unorthodox ideas of a single, charismatic economic journalist, Jude Wanniski, has now, almost four decades later, finally come back to its roots.  Welcome home where you belong.

Too Little, Too Late?

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.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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