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.