Last week Martin Feldstein triggered a fascinating four-way exchange with a post explaining yet again why we still need to be worried about inflation. Tony Yates responded first with an explanation of why money printing doesn’t work at the zero lower bound (aka liquidity trap), leading Paul Krugman to comment wearily about the obtuseness of all those right-wingers who just can’t stop obsessing about the non-existent inflation threat when, all along, it was crystal clear that in a liquidity trap, printing money is useless.
I’m still not sure why relatively moderate conservatives like Feldstein didn’t find all this convincing back in 2009. I get, I think, why politics might predispose them to see inflation risks everywhere, but this was as crystal-clear a proposition as I’ve ever seen. Still, even if you managed to convince yourself that the liquidity-trap analysis was wrong six years ago, by now you should surely have realized that Bernanke, Woodford, Eggertsson, and, yes, me got it right.
But no — it’s a complete puzzle. Maybe it’s because those tricksy Fed officials started paying all of 25 basis points on reserves (Japan never paid such interest). Anyway, inflation is just around the corner, the same way it has been all these years.
Which surprisingly (not least to Krugman) led Brad DeLong to rise to Feldstein’s defense (well, sort of), pointing out that there is a respectable argument to be made for why even if money printing is not immediately effective at the zero lower bound, it could still be effective down the road, so that the mere fact that inflation has been consistently below 2% since the crash (except for a short blip when oil prices spiked in 2011-12) doesn’t mean that inflation might not pick up quickly once inflation expectations pick up a bit, triggering an accelerating and self-sustaining inflation as all those hitherto idle balances start gushing into circulation.
That argument drew a slightly dyspeptic response from Krugman who again pointed out, as had Tony Yates, that at the zero lower bound, the demand for cash is virtually unlimited so that there is no tendency for monetary expansion to raise prices, as if DeLong did not already know that. For some reason, Krugman seems unwilling to accept the implication of the argument in his own 1998 paper that he cites frequently: that for an increase in the money stock to raise the price level – note that there is an implicit assumption that the real demand for money does not change – the increase must be expected to be permanent. (I also note that the argument had been made almost 20 years earlier by Jack Hirshleifer, in his Fisherian text on capital theory, Capital Interest and Investment.) Thus, on Krugman’s own analysis, the effect of an increase in the money stock is expectations-dependent. A change in monetary policy will be inflationary if it is expected to be inflationary, and it will not be inflationary if it is not expected to be inflationary. And Krugman even quotes himself on the point, referring to
my call for the Bank of Japan to “credibly promise to be irresponsible” — to make the expansion of the base permanent, by committing to a relatively high inflation target. That was the main point of my 1998 paper!
So the question whether the monetary expansion since 2008 will ever turn out to be inflationary depends not on an abstract argument about the shape of the LM curve, but about the evolution of inflation expectations over time. I’m not sure that I’m persuaded by DeLong’s backward induction argument – an argument that I like enough to have used myself on occasion while conceding that the logic may not hold in the real word – but there is no logical inconsistency between the backward-induction argument and Krugman’s credibility argument; they simply reflect different conjectures about the evolution of inflation expectations in a world in which there is uncertainty about what the future monetary policy of the central bank is going to be (in other words, a world like the one we inhabit).
Which brings me to the real point of this post: the problem with monetary policy since 2008 has been that the Fed has credibly adopted a 2% inflation target, a target that, it is generally understood, the Fed prefers to undershoot rather than overshoot. Thus, in operational terms, the actual goal is really less than 2%. As long as the inflation target credibly remains less than 2%, the argument about inflation risk is about the risk that the Fed will credibly revise its target upwards.
With the both Wickselian natural real and natural nominal short-term rates of interest probably below zero, it would have made sense to raise the inflation target to get the natural nominal short-term rate above zero. There were other reasons to raise the inflation target as well, e.g., providing debt relief to debtors, thereby benefitting not only debtors but also those creditors whose debtors simply defaulted.
Krugman takes it for granted that monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, but that impotence is not inherent; it is self-imposed by the credibility of the Fed’s own inflation target. To be sure, changing the inflation target is not a decision that we would want the Fed to take lightly, because it opens up some very tricky time-inconsistency problems. However, in a crisis, you may have to take a chance and hope that credibility can be restored by future responsible behavior once things get back to normal.
In this vein, I am reminded of the 1930 exchange between Hawtrey and Hugh Pattison Macmillan, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Industry, when Hawtrey, testifying before the Committee, suggested that the Bank of England reduce Bank Rate even at the risk of endangering the convertibility of sterling into gold (England eventually left the gold standard a little over a year later)
MACMILLAN. . . . the course you suggest would not have been consistent with what one may call orthodox Central Banking, would it?
HAWTREY. I do not know what orthodox Central Banking is.
MACMILLAN. . . . when gold ebbs away you must restrict credit as a general principle?
HAWTREY. . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it.
Of course the best evidence for the effectiveness of monetary policy at the zero lower bound was provided three years later, in April 1933, when FDR suspended the gold standard in the US, causing the dollar to depreciate against gold, triggering an immediate rise in US prices (wholesale prices rising 14% from April through July) and the fastest real recovery in US history (industrial output rising by over 50% over the same period). A recent paper by Andrew Jalil and Gisela Rua documents this amazing recovery from the depths of the Great Depression and the crucial role that changing inflation expectations played in stimulating the recovery. They also make a further important point: that by announcing a price level target, FDR both accelerated the recovery and prevented expectations of inflation from increasing without limit. The 1933 episode suggests that a sharp, but limited, increase in the price-level target would generate a faster and more powerful output response than an incremental increase in the inflation target. Unfortunately, after the 2008 downturn we got neither.
Maybe it’s too much to expect that an unelected central bank would take upon itself to adopt as a policy goal a substantial increase in the price level. Had the Fed announced such a goal after the 2008 crisis, it would have invited a potentially fatal attack, and not just from the usual right-wing suspects, on its institutional independence. Price stability, is after all, part of dual mandate that Fed is legally bound to pursue. And it was FDR, not the Fed, that took the US off the gold standard.
But even so, we at least ought to be clear that if monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, the impotence is not caused by any inherent weakness, but by the institutional and political constraints under which it operates in a constitutional system. And maybe there is no better argument for nominal GDP level targeting than that it offers a practical and civilly reverent way of allowing monetary policy to be effective at the zero lower bound.