Posts Tagged 'FOMC'

Stephen Williamson Defends the FOMC

Publication of the transcripts of the FOMC meetings in 2008 has triggered a wave of criticism of the FOMC for the decisions it took in 2008. Since the transcripts were released I have written two posts (here and here) charging that the inflation-phobia of the FOMC was a key (though not the sole) cause of the financial crisis in September 2008. Many other bloggers, Matt Yglesias, Scott Sumner, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, just to name a few, were also sharply critical of the FOMC, though Paul Krugman at any rate seemed to think that the Fed’s inflation obsession was merely weird rather than catastrophic.

Stephen Williamson, however, has a different take on all this. In a post last week, just after the release of the transcripts, Williamson chastised Matt Yglesias for chastising Ben Bernanke and the FOMC for not reducing the Federal Funds target at the September 16 FOMC meeting, the day after Lehman went into bankruptcy. Williamson quotes this passage from Yglesias’s post.

New documents released last week by the Federal Reserve shed important new light on one of the most consequential and underdiscussed moments of recent American history: the decision to hold interest rates flat on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, the meeting at which the decision was made was overshadowed by the ongoing presidential campaign and Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing the previous day. Political reporters were focused on the campaign, economic reporters on Lehman, and since the news from the Fed was that nothing was changing, it didn’t make for much of a story. But in retrospect, it looks to have been a major policy blunder—one that was harmful on its own terms and that set a precedent for a series of later disasters.

To which Williamson responds acidly:

So, it’s like there was a fire at City Hall, and five years later a reporter for the local rag is complaining that the floor wasn’t swept while the fire was in progress.

Now, in a way, I agree with Williamson’s point here; I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize the September 16 meeting. By September 16, the damage had been done. The significance of the decision not to cut the Fed Funds target is not that the Fed might have prevented a panic that was already developing (though I don’t rule out the possibility that a strong enough statement by the FOMC might have provided enough reassurance to the markets to keep the crisis from spiraling out of control), but what the decision tells us about the mindset of the FOMC. Just read the statement that the Fed issued after its meeting.

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 2 percent.

Strains in financial markets have increased significantly and labor markets have weakened further. Economic growth appears to have slowed recently, partly reflecting a softening of household spending. Tight credit conditions, the ongoing housing contraction, and some slowing in export growth are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters. Over time, the substantial easing of monetary policy, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate economic growth.

Inflation has been high, spurred by the earlier increases in the prices of energy and some other commodities. The Committee expects inflation to moderate later this year and next year, but the inflation outlook remains highly uncertain.

The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee. The Committee will monitor economic and financial developments carefully and will act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.

What planet were they living on? “The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee.” OMG!

Williamson, however, sees it differently.

[T]he FOMC agreed to keep the fed funds rate target constant at 2%. Seems like this was pretty dim-witted of the committee, given what was going on in financial markets that very day, right? Wrong. At that point, the fed funds market target rate had become completely irrelevant.

Williamson goes on to point out that although the FOMC did not change the Fed Funds target, borrowings from the Fed increased sharply in September, so that the Fed was effectively easing its policy even though the target – a meaningless target in Williamson’s view – had not changed.

Thus, by September 16, 2008, it seems the Fed was effectively already at the zero lower bound. At that time the fed funds target was irrelevant, as there were excess reserves in the system, and the effective fed funds rate was irrelevant, as it reflected risk.

I want to make two comments on Williamson’s argument. First, the argument is certainly at odds with Bernanke’s own statement in the transcript, towards the end of the September 16 meeting, giving his own recommendation about what policy action the FOMC should take:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

So Bernanke clearly states that his view is that the current fed funds target was “appropriate.” He did not say that the fed funds rate is at the lower bound. Instead, he explains why he does not want to cut the fed funds rate, implying that he believed that cutting the rate was an option. He didn’t want to exercise that option, because he did not like the “very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward” that a rate cut would send. Indeed, he intimates that a rate cut of 25 basis points would be meaningless under the circumstances, suggesting an awareness, however vague, that a crisis was brewing, so that a cut in the target rate would have to be substantial to calm, rather than scare, the markets. (The next cut, three weeks later, was 50 basis points, and things only got worse.)

Second, suppose for argument’s sake, that Williamson is right and Bernanke (and almost everyone else) was wrong, that the fed funds target was meaningless. Does that mean that the Fed’s inflation obsession in 2008 is just an optical illusion with no significance — that the Fed was powerless to have done anything that would have increased expenditure and income, thereby avoiding or alleviating the crisis?

I don’t think so, and the reason is that, as I pointed out in my previous post, the dollar began appreciating rapidly in forex markets in mid-July 2009, the dollar euro exchange rate appreciating by about 12% and the trade-weighted value of the dollar appreciating by about 10% between mid-July and the week before the Lehman collapse. An appreciating that rapid was a clear sign that there was a shortage of dollar liquidity which was causing spending to drop all through the economy, as later confirmed by the sharp drop in third-quarter GDP. The dollar fell briefly in the days just before and after the Lehman collapse, then resuming its sharp ascent as the financial crisis worsened in September and October, appreciating by another 10-15%.

So even if the fed funds target was ineffectual, the Fed, along with the Treasury, still had it within their power to intervene in forex markets, selling dollars for euros and other currencies, thereby preventing the dollar from rising further in value. Unfortunately, as is clear from the transcripts, the FOMC thought that the rising dollar was a favorable development that would reduce the inflation about which it was so obsessively concerned. So the FOMC happily watched the dollar rise by 25% against other currencies between July and November as the economy tanked, because, as the September 16 statement of the FOMC so eloquently put it, “upside risks to inflation are . . . of significant concern to the Committee.” The FOMC gave us the monetary policy it wanted us to have.

Why Fed Inflation-Phobia Mattered

Last week I posted an item summarizing Matthew O’Brien’s article about the just-released transcripts of FOMC meetings in June, August and September of 2008. I spiced up my summary by quoting from and commenting on some of the more outrageous quotes that O’Brien culled from the transcripts, quotes showing that most of the FOMC, including Ben Bernanke, were obsessing about inflation while unemployment was rising rapidly and the economy contracting sharply. I especially singled out what I called the Gang of Four — Charles Plosser, Jeffrey Lacker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig, the most militant inflation hawks on the FOMC — noting that despite their comprehensive misjudgments of the 2008 economic situation and spectacularly wrongheaded policy recommendations, which they have yet to acknowledge, much less apologize for, three of them (Plosser, Lacker, and Fisher) continue to serve in their Fed positions, displaying the same irrational inflation-phobia by which they were possessed in 2008. Paul Krugman also noticed O’Brien’s piece and remarked on the disturbing fact that three of the Gang of Four remain in their policy-making positions at the Fed, doing their best to keep the Fed from taking any steps that could increase output and employment.

However, Krugman went on to question the idea — suggested by, among others, me — that it was the Fed’s inflation phobia that produced the crash of 2008. Krugman has two arguments for why the Fed’s inflation phobia in 2008, however silly, did not the cause of the crash.

First, preventing the financial crisis would have taken a lot more than cutting the Fed funds rate to zero in September 2008 rather than December. We were in the midst of an epic housing bust, which was in turn causing a collapse in the value of mortgage-backed securities, which in turn was causing a collapse of confidence in financial firms. Cutting rates from very low to extremely low a few months earlier wouldn’t have stopped that collapse.

What was needed to end the run on Wall Street was a bailout — both the actual funds disbursed and the reassurance that the authorities would step in if necessary. And that wasn’t in the cards until, as Rick Mishkin observed in the transcripts, “something hit the fan.”

Second, even avoiding the financial panic almost surely wouldn’t have meant avoiding a prolonged economic slump. How do we know this? Well, what we actually know is that the panic was in fact fairly short-lived, ending in the spring of 2009. It doesn’t really matter which measure of financial stress you use, they all look like this:

Yet the economy didn’t come roaring back, and in fact still hasn’t. Why? Because the housing bust and the overhang of household debt are huge drags on demand, even if there isn’t a panic in the financial market.

Sorry, but, WADR, I have to disagree with Professor Krugman.

The first argument is not in my view very compelling, because the Fed’s inflation-phobia did not suddenly appear at the September 2008 FOMC meeting, or even at the June meeting, though, to be sure, its pathological nature at those meetings does have a certain breathtaking quality; it had already been operating for a long time before that. If you look at the St. Louis Fed’s statistics on the monetary base, you will find that the previous recession in 2001 had been preceded in 2000 by a drop of 3.6% in the monetary base. To promote recovery, the Fed increased the monetary base in 2001 (partly accommodating the increased demand for money characteristic of recessions) by 8.5%. The monetary base subsequently grew by 7% in 2002, 5.2% in 2003, 4.4% in 2004, 3.2% in 2005, 2.6% in 2006, and a mere 1.2% in 2007.

The housing bubble burst in 2006, but the Fed was evidently determined to squeeze inflation out of the system, as if trying to atone for its sins in allowing the housing bubble in the first place. From January to September 10, 2008, the monetary base increased by 3.3%. Again, because the demand for money typically increases in recessions, one cannot infer from the slight increase in the rate of growth of the monetary base in 2008 over 2006 and 2007 that the Fed was easing its policy stance. (On this issue, see my concluding paragraph.) The point is that for at least three years before the crash, the Fed, in its anti-inflationary zelotry, had been gradually tightening the monetary-policy screws. So it is simply incorrect to suggest that there was no link between the policy stance of the Fed and the state of the economy. If the Fed had moderated its stance in 2008 in response to ample evidence that the economy was slowing, there is good reason to think that the economy would not have contracted as rapidly as it did, starting, even before the Lehman collapse, in the third quarter of 2008, when, we now know, the economy had already begun one of the sharpest contractions of the entire post World War II era.

As for Krugman’s second argument, I believe it is a mistake to confuse a financial panic with a recession. A financial panic is an acute breakdown of the financial system, always associated with a period of monetary stringency when demands for liquidity cannot be satisfied owing to a contagious loss of confidence in the solvency of borrowers and lenders. The crisis is typically precipitated by a too aggressive tightening of monetary conditions by the monetary authority seeking to rein in inflationary pressures. The loss of confidence is thus not a feature of every business-cycle downturn, and its restoration no guarantee of a recovery. (See my post on Hawtrey and financial crises.) A recovery requires an increase aggregate demand, which is the responsibility of those in charge of monetary policy and fiscal policy. I confess to a measure of surprise that the author of End This Depression Now would require a reminder about that from me.

A final point. Although the macroeconomic conditions for an asset crash and financial panic had been gradually and systematically created by the Fed ever since 2006, the egregious Fed policy in the summer of 2008 was undoubtedly a major contributing cause in its own right. The magnitude of the policy error is evident in this graph from the St. Louis Fed, showing the dollar/euro exchange rate.

dollar_euro_exchange_rateFrom April to July, the exchange rate was fluctuating between $1.50 and $1.60 per euro. In mid-July, the dollar began appreciating rapidly against the euro, rising in value to about $1.40/euro just before the Lehman collapse, an appreciation of about 12.5% in less than two months. The only comparable period of appreciation in the dollar/euro exchange rate was in the 1999-2000 period during the monetary tightening prior to the 2001 recession. But the 2008 appreciation was clearly greater and steeper than the appreciation in 1999-2000. Under the circumstances, such a sharp appreciation in the dollar should have alerted the FOMC that there was a liquidity shortage (also evidenced in a sharp increase in borrowings from the Fed) that required extraordinary countermeasures by the Fed. But the transcript of the September 2008 meeting shows that the appreciation of the dollar was interpreted by members of the FOMC as evidence that the current policy was working as intended! Now how scary is that?

HT: Matt O’Brien

Exposed: Irrational Inflation-Phobia at the Fed Caused the Panic of 2008

Matthew O’Brien at The Atlantic has written a marvelous account of the bizarre deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee at its meetings (June 25 and August 5) before the Lehman debacle on September 15 2008 and its meeting the next day on September 16. A few weeks ago, I wrote in half-seriousness a post attributing the 2008 financial crisis to ethanol because of the runup in corn and other grain prices in 2008 owing to the ethanol mandate and the restrictions on imported ethanol products. But ethanol, as several commenters pointed out, was only a part, probably a relatively small part, of the spike in commodities prices in the summer of 2008. Thanks to O’Brien’s careful reading of the recently released transcripts of the 2008 meetings of the FOMC, we now have a clear picture of how obsessed the FOMC was about inflation, especially the gang of four regional bank presidents, Charles Plosser, Richard Fisher, James Lacker, and Thomas Hoenig, supported to a greater or lesser extent by James Bullard and Kevin Warsh.

On the other hand, O’Brien does point out that two members of the FOMC, Eric Rosengren, President of the Boston Fed, and Fredric Mishkin of the Board of Governors, consistently warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, and consistently objected to and cogently punctured the hysterical inflation fears of the gang of four. It is somewhat, but only somewhat, reassuring that Janet Yellen was slightly more sensitive to the dangers of a financial crisis and less concerned about inflation than Ben Bernanke. Perhaps because he was still getting his feet wet as chairman, Bernanke seems to have been trying to articulate a position that could balance the opposing concerns of the FOMC membership, rather than leading the FOMC in the direction he thought best. While Yellen did not indulge the inflation phobia of the gang of four, she did not strongly support Rosengren and Mishkin in calling for aggressive action to avert the crisis that they clearly saw looming on the horizon.

Here are some highlights from O’Brien’s brilliant piece:

[FOMC Meeting] June 24-25, 2008: 468 mentions of inflation, 44 of unemployment, and 35 of systemic risks/crises

Those numbers pretty much tell you everything you need to know about what happened during the disastrous summer of 2008 at the Fed

Rosengren wasn’t nearly as concerned with 5 percent headline inflation—and with good reason. He reminded his colleagues that “monetary policy is unlikely to have much effect on food and energy prices,” that “total [inflation] has tended to converge to core, and not the opposite,” and that there was a “lack of an upward trend of wages and salaries.”

In short, inflation was high today, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow. They should ignore it. A few agreed. Most didn’t.

Mishkin, Fed Governor Donald Kohn, and then-San Francisco Fed chief Janet Yellen comprised Team: Ignore Inflation. They pointed out that core inflation hadn’t actually risen, and that “inflation expectations remain reasonably well-anchored.” The rest of the Fed, though, was eager to raise rates soon, if not right away. Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser recognized that core inflation was flat, but still thought they needed to get ready to tighten “or our credibility could soon vanish.” Fed Governor Kevin Warsh said that “inflation risks, in my view, continue to predominate as the greater risk to the economy,” because he thought headline would get passed into core inflation.

And let us not forget Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed who provided badly needed comic relief.

And then there was Dallas Fed chief Richard Fisher, who had a singular talent for seeing inflation that nobody else could—a sixth sense, if you will. He was allergic to data. He preferred talking to CEOs instead. But, in Fisher’s case, the plural of anecdote wasn’t data. It was nonsense. He was worried about Frito-Lays increasing prices 9 percent, Budweiser increasing them 3.5 percent, and a small dry-cleaning chain in Dallas increasing them, well, an undisclosed amount. He even half-joked that the Fed was giving out smaller bottles of water, presumably to hide creeping inflation?

By the way, I notice that these little bottles of water have gotten smaller—this will be a Visine bottle at the next meeting. [Laughter]

But it was another member of the Gang of Four who warned ominously:

Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker suggested, that “at some point we’re going to choose to let something disruptive happen.”

Now to the August meeting:

[FOMC Meeting] August 5, 2008: 322 mentions of inflation, 28 of unemployment, and 19 of systemic risks/crises.

Despite evidence that the inflationary blip of spring and summer was winding down, and the real economy was weakening, the Gang of Four continued to press their case for tougher anti-inflation measures. But only Rosengren and Mishkin spoke out against them.

But even though inflation was falling, it was a lonesome time to be a dove. As the Fed’s resident Cassandra, Rosengren tried to convince his colleagues that high headline inflation numbers “appear to be transitory responses to supply shocks that are not flowing through to labor markets.” In other words, inflation would come down on its own, and the Fed should focus on the credit crunch instead. Mishkin worried that “really bad things could happen” if “a shoe drops” and there was a “nasty, vicious spiral” between weak banks and a weak economy. Given this, he wanted to wait to tighten until inflation expectations “actually indicate there is a problem,” and not before.

But Richard Fisher was in no mood to worry about horror stories unless they were about runaway inflation:

The hawks didn’t want to wait. Lacker admitted that wages hadn’t gone up, but thought that “if we wait until wage rates accelerate or TIPS measures spike, we will have waited too long.” He wanted the Fed to “be prepared to raise rates even if growth is not back to potential, and even if financial markets are not yet tranquil.” In other words, to fight nonexistent wage inflation today to prevent possible wage inflation tomorrow, never mind the crumbling economy. Warsh, for his part, kept insisting that “inflation risks are very real, and I believe that these are higher than growth risks.” And Fisher had more”chilling anecdotes”—as Bernanke jokingly called them—about inflation. This time, the culprit was Disney World and its 5 percent price increase for single-day tickets.

The FOMC was divided, but the inflation-phobes held the upper hand. Unwilling to challenge them, Bernanke appeased them by promising that his statement about future monetary policy after the meeting would be “be slightly hawkish—to indicate a slight uplift in policy.”

Frightened by what he was hearing, Mishkin reminded his colleagues of some unpleasant monetary history:

Remember that in the Great Depression, when—I can’t use the expression because it would be in the transcripts, but you know what I’m thinking—something hit the fan, [laughter] it actually occurred close to a year after the initial negative shock.

Mishkin also reminded his colleagues that the stance of monetary policy cannot be directly inferred from the federal funds rate.

I just very much hope that this Committee does not make this mistake because I have to tell you that the situation is scary to me. I’m holding two houses right now. I’m very nervous.

And now to the September meeting, the day after Lehman collapsed:

[FOMC meeting] September 16, 2008: 129 mentions of inflation, 26 of unemployment, and 4 of systemic risks/crises

Chillingly, Lacker and Hoenig did a kind of victory dance about the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lacker had gotten the “disruptive” event he had wanted, and he was pretty pleased about it. “What we did with Lehman I obviously think was good,” he said, because it would “enhance the credibility of any commitment that we make in the future to be willing to let an institution fail.” Hoenig concurred that it was the “right thing,” because it would suck moral hazard out of the market.

The rest of the Gang of Four and their allies remained focused like a laser on inflation.

Even though commodity prices and inflation expectations were both falling fast, Hoenig wanted the Fed to “look beyond the immediate crisis,” and recognize that “we also have an inflation issue.” Bullard thought that “an inflation problem is brewing.” Plosser was heartened by falling commodity prices, but said, “I remain concerned about the inflation outlook going forward,” because “I do not see the ongoing slowdown in economic activity is entirely demand driven.” And Fisher half-jokingly complained that the bakery he’d been going to for 30 years—”the best maker of not only bagels, but anything with Crisco in it”—had just increased prices. All of them wanted to leave rates unchanged at 2 percent.

Again, only Eric Rosengren seemed to be in touch with reality, but no was listening:

[Rosengren] was afraid that exactly what did end up happening would happen. That all the financial chaos “would have a significant impact on the real economy,” that “individuals and firms will be become risk averse, with reluctance to consume or invest,” that “credit spreads are rising, and the cost and availability of financing is becoming more difficult,” and that “deleveraging is likely to occur with a vengeance.” More than that, he thought that the “calculated bet” they took in letting Lehman fail would look particularly bad “if we have a run on the money market funds or if the nongovernment tri-party repo market shuts down.” He wanted to cut rates immediately to do what they could to offset the worsening credit crunch. Nobody else did.

Like Bernanke for instance. Here is his take on the situation:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

OMG!

O’Brien uses one of my favorite Hawtrey quotes to describe the insanity of the FOMC deliberations:

In other words, the Fed was just as worried about an inflation scare that was already passing as it was about a once-in-three-generations crisis.

It brought to mind what economist R. G. Hawtrey had said about the Great Depression. Back then, central bankers had worried more about the possibility of inflation than the grim reality of deflation. It was, Hawtrey said, like “crying Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood.”

In any non-dysfunctional institution, the perpetrators of this outrage would have been sacked. But three of Gang of Four (Hoenig having become a director of the FDIC in 2012) remain safely ensconced in their exalted positions, blithely continuing, without the slightest acknowledgment of their catastrophic past misjudgments, to exert a malign influence on monetary policy. For shame!

Bernanke Gives the Markets a Scare

Ben Bernanke held a press conference today at the conclusion of the FOMC meeting held yesterday and today. The stock market had risen by almost 2 percent on Monday and Tuesday, apparently in hopes that Bernanke would have something encouraging to say about Fed policy. They were obviously disappointed. The accompanying chart shows how the S&P 500 has fluctuated since last Thursday, the sharp drop today coincided with Bernanke’s press conference.

S&P500_6-13_6-19 S&P500_6-13_6-19

What was so disturbing to the markets? Well, Bernanke’s press conference triggered some sharp movements in the bond markets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped by 13 basis points to 2.33%. I don’t have a chart of the intra-day fluctuation, but I am pretty sure almost all of the movement occurred after the press conference started. Meanwhile the yield on the 10-year TIPS jumped 15 basis points, from 0.14% to 0.29%, implying a 2-basis-point drop in the breakeven TIPS spread, to 2.04%. A two-basis-point change in inflation expectations is not very remarkable. So it seems that what drove the increase in yield was the increase in the real rate. But one has to be careful in identifying the TIPS spread with the real rate of interest, especially when one sees sudden changes in the market, changes that could reflect factors other than the real rate of interest, such as illiquidity in the TIPS market or increasing uncertainty about future inflation, even though expected inflation is not changing much.

Let’s look at two other markets that moved sharply after Bernanke started talking this afternoon. The chart below shows the movement of dollar/euro exchange rate since Monday. The dollar weakened slightly on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday morning, but as soon as Bernanke got started the dollar shot up against the euro.

dollar_euro_exchange_rate

That should not necessarily be construed as a vote of confidence in Bernanke, even though it apparently pleased Bernanke et al. to think that the sharp run-up in the value of the dollar in August 2008 was a sign of confidence that Fed policy to keep inflation expectations anchored was working. It is hard to interpret today’s sharp increase in the value of the dollar as anything but an expectation of future tightening of monetary policy by the Fed. But then why did inflation expectations fall by only 2 basis points?

Another market that is supposed to be sensitive to inflation expectations is gold, though in my view the demand for gold is too irrational to provide any usable information about expectations. But I will suspend my disbelief in the rationality of gold traders for the time being to note that the price of gold has just fallen to a new low for the year, dropping below $1340 an ounce or almost 3% since yesterday. A fall in the value of gold is consistent with an increase in real interest rates or with a decline in inflation expectations, so take your pick.

Some people have suggested that declining inflation expectations and rising real interest rates are manifestations of a positive supply shock, also reflected in declining commodity prices. A positive supply shock would have provided the Fed with an opportunity to relax monetary policy further without risk of raising inflation or inflation expectations from current levels, which already are well below the Fed’s announced 2% target. If continued Fed easing was what the markets had been anticipating earlier in the week, reflected in a gently falling dollar exchange rate, even with inflation expectations stable or falling, then Bernanke’s announcement today constituted a tightening of policy relative to expectations. The tightening drove up the dollar and caused a further, albeit small, decline in inflation expectations. (But I should note that this interpretation depends on what may be an oversimplified identification of the TIPS spread with inflation expectations.)

At any rate, I don’t think that we have a clear understanding of what is driving markets at this point. Markets still seem to be in confusion. Today’s movements in the markets were sudden and sharp, but they were also fairly modest. A one or two percent movement in markets is hardly a major event. Nevertheless, by displaying an unseemly haste to withdraw the very modest monetary stimulus that the Fed has begrudgingly provided, Bernanke may have given the markets a bit of scare, reminding them how indifferent central bankers have been to the ongoing disaster of the Little Depression. The markets did not panic, but we may be flying into turbulence. Keep your seat belts fastened.

What’s a Central Banker To Do?

The FOMC is meeting tomorrow and Wednesday, and it seems as if everyone is weighing in with advice for Ben Bernanke and company. But you can always count on the Wall Street Journal editorial page to dish up something especially fatuous when the topic turns to monetary policy and the Fed. This time the Journal turns to George Melloan, a former editor and columnist at the Journal, to explain why the market has recently turned “skittish” in anticipation that the Fed may be about to taper off from its latest venture into monetary easing.

Some of us have been arguing that recent Fed signals that it will taper off from quantitative easing have scared the markets, which are now anticipating rising real interest rates and declining inflation. Inflation expectations have been declining since March, but, until the latter part of May, that was probably a positive development, reflecting expectations of increased real output under the steady, if less than adequate, policy announced last fall. But the expectation that quantitative easing may soon be tapered off seems to have caused a further decline in inflation expectations and a further increase in real interest rates.

But Melloan sees it differently

We are in an age where the eight male and four female members of the FOMC are responsible for whether securities markets float or sink. Traders around the world who in better times considered a range of variables now focus on a single one, Federal Reserve policy. . . .

In the bygone days of free markets, stocks tended to move counter to bonds as investors switched from one to the other to maximize yield. But in the new world of government rigging, they often head in the same direction. That’s not good for investors.

Oh dear, where to begin? Who cares how many males and females are on the FOMC? Was the all-male Federal Reserve Board that determined monetary during the Great Depression more to Mr. Melloan’s liking? I discovered about three years ago that since early in 2008 there has been a clear correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices. (See my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations.“) That correlation was not created, as Melloan and his colleagues at the Journal seem to think, by the Fed’s various half-hearted attempts at quantitative-easing; it is caused by a dangerous conjuncture between low real rates of interest and low or negative rates of expected inflation. Real rates of interest are largely, but not exclusively, determined by entrepreneurial expectations of future economic conditions, and inflation expectations are largely, but not exclusively, determined by the Fed policy.

So the cure for a recession will generally require inflation expectations to increase relative to real interest rates. Either real rates must fall or inflation expectations (again largely under the control of the Fed) must rise. Thus, an increase in inflation expectations, when real interest rates are too high, can cause stock prices to rise without causing bond prices to fall. It is certainly true that it is not good for investors when the economy happens to be in a situation such that an increase in expected inflation raises stock prices. But that’s no reason not to reduce real interest rates. Using monetary policy to raise real interest rates, as Mr. Melloan would like the Fed to do, in a recession is a prescription for perpetuating joblessness.

Melloan accuses the Fed of abandoning free markets and rigging interest rates. But he can’t have it both ways. The Fed did not suddenly lose the power to rig markets last month when interest rates on long-term bonds rose sharply. Bernanke only hinted at the possibility of a tapering off from quantitative easing. The Fed’s control over the market is supported by nothing but the expectations of millions of market participants. If the expectations of traders are inconsistent with the Fed’s policy, the Fed has no power to prevent market prices from adjusting to the expectations of traders.

Melloan closes with the further accusation that Bernanke et al. hold “the grandiose belief . . . that the Fed is capable of superhuman feats, like running the global economy.” That’s nonsense. The Fed is not running the global economy. In its own muddled fashion, the Fed is trying to create market expectations about the future value of the dollar that will support an economic expansion. Unfortunately, the Fed seems not to have figured out that a rapid recovery is highly unlikely to occur unless something is done to sharply raise the near term expected rate of inflation relative to the real rate of interest.

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.

The Vampire Theory of Inflation

The FOMC issued an opaque statement yesterday observing that the economy is continuing to expand at “a moderate pace,” though unemployment remains too high while inflation is falling. The statement attributes the weakness of the recovery, at least in part, to fiscal tightening, perhaps suggesting that the Fed would not, under these circumstances, tighten monetary policy if fiscal policy were eased.

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in March suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace. Labor market conditions have shown some improvement in recent months, on balance, but the unemployment rate remains elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment advanced, and the housing sector has strengthened further, but fiscal policy is restraining economic growth. Inflation has been running somewhat below the Committee’s longer-run objective, apart from temporary variations that largely reflect fluctuations in energy prices. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

Notice despite the neutral, matter-of-fact tone of the statement, there are two factually inaccurate, or at least misleading, assertions about inflation. First, while the assertion “inflation has been running somewhat below the Committee’s longer-run objective,” is not objectively false, the assertion ignores the steady downward trend in inflation for the past year, while sewing confusion with a gratuitous diversionary reference to “temporary variations that largely reflect fluctuations in energy prices.” By almost any measure, inflation is now running closer to 1% than to the Fed’s own 2% target.

Second, the statement asserts that longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable. Oh really? If we take the 10-year TIPS spread as a proxy for long-term inflation expectations, inflation expectations have been falling steadily since the mid-January to mid-March time frame, when the breakeven rate fluctuated in a narrow range between 2.5% and 2.6%, to a spread of 2.3% yesterday, the lowest since early September of last year.

The FOMC continues:

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic growth will proceed at a moderate pace and the unemployment rate will gradually decline toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate. The Committee continues to see downside risks to the economic outlook. The Committee also anticipates that inflation over the medium term likely will run at or below its 2% objective.

Well, here is my question.  If the FOMC “seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability,” and the FOMC itself anticipates that inflation over the medium term will likely be less than 2%, why, under the FOMC’s own definition of price stability as 2% inflation, is the FOMC proposing to do nothing — not a single wretched thing — to hit its own inflation target?

Under both elements of its dual mandate, the FOMC is unambiguously obligated to increase the rate of monetary accommodation now being provided. The FOMC asserts that unemployment is elevated; it also asserts, notwithstanding a pathetic attempt to disguise  that obvious fact, that inflation is below its target. Both conditions require increased monetary expansion. There is now no trade-off between inflation and unemployment, and no conflict between the Fed’s two mandates. So why can’t the Fed do what it is plainly obligated to do by current legislation? Pointing a finger at the President and Congress cannot absolve the Fed of its own legal obligation not to tolerate an inflation rate below that consistent with price stability when unemployment is elevated. Is there no one capable of extracting from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board an explanation of this dereliction of duty?

Interestingly enough, I happened to catch a piece (“Should we bring inflation back from the dead?”) on American Public Radio’s “Marketplace” last evening. After asking David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Kevin Jacques of Baldwin Wallace University about the potential benefits of moderate inflation in the current environment, reporter David Gura turned to Marvin Goodfriend, formerly of the Richmond Fed, and now at Carnegie-Mellon, for a contrary view. Here is how Goodfriend explained why more inflation would not be a good thing.

Of course, resurrecting inflation is not risk-free. Economist Marvin Goodfriend says this kind of thinking could lead the economy to overheat: “If a little inflation is good, maybe a little more inflation is better.” It is something that is hard to control.

Goodfriend tells his students at Carnegie Mellon University to remember something.

“Inflation doesn’t die,” he says. “It’s like a vampire.”

You can vanquish it with “determined policy,” Goodfriend explains. Inflation will creep back into its coffin. And then, when you least expect it, it can come back with a vengeance.

Whew! Talk about sophisticated economic analysis. But then again, Goodfriend’s students at Carnegie-Mellon are super bright, aren’t they? Could this be what Bernanke and his colleagues are thinking? The vampire theory of inflation? Say it ain’t so, Ben.

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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