Archive for May, 2022

Summer 2008 Redux?

Nearly 14 years ago, in the summer of 2008, as a recession that started late in 2007 was rapidly deepening and unemployment rapidly rising, the Fed, mainly concerned about rising headline inflation fueled by record-breaking oil prices, kept its Fed Funds target at the 2% level set in May (slightly reduced from the 2.25% target set in March), lest inflation expectations become unanchored.

Let’s look at what happened after the Fed Funds target was reduced to 2.25% in March 2008. The price of crude oil (West Texas Intermediate) rose by nearly 50% between March and July, causing CPI inflation (year over year) between March and August to increase from 4% to 5.5%, even as unemployment rose from 5.1% in March to 5.8% in July. The PCE index, closely watched by the Fed as more indicative of underlying inflation than the CPI, showed inflation rising even faster than did the CPI.

Not only did the Fed refuse to counter rising unemployment and declining income and output by reducing its Fed Funds target, it made clear that reducing inflation was a more urgent goal than countering economic contraction and rising unemployment. An unchanged Fed Funds target while income and employment are falling, in effect, tightens monetary policy, a point underscored by the Fed as it emphasized its intent, despite the uptick in inflation caused by rising oil prices, to keep inflation expectations anchored.

The passive tightening of monetary policy associated with an unchanged Federal Funds target while income and employment were falling and the price of oil was rising led to a nearly 15% decline in the price of between mid-July and the end of August, and to a concurrent 10% increase in the dollar exchange rate against the euro, a deflationary trend also refelcted in an increase in the unemployment rate to 6.1% in August.

Evidently pleased with the deflationary impact of its passive tightening of monetary policy, the Fed viewed the falling price of oil and the appreciation of the dollar as an implicit endorsement by the markets, notwithstanding a deepening recession in a financially fragile economy, of its hard line on inflation. With major financial institutions weakened by the aftereffects of bad and sometimes fraudulent investments made in the expectation of rising home prices that then began falling, many debtors (both households and businesses) had neither sufficient cash flow nor sufficient credit to meet their debt obligations. Perhaps emboldened by the perceived market endorsement of its hard line on inflation, When the Lehman Brothers investment bank, heavily invested in subprime mortgages, was on the verge of collapse in the second week of September, the Fed, perhaps emboldened by the perceived approval of its anti-inflation hard line by the markets, refused to provide, or arrange for, emergency financing to enable Lehman to meet obligations coming due, triggering a financial panic stoked by fears that other institutions were at risk, causing an almost immediate freeze up of credit facilities in financial centers in the US and around the world. The rest is history.

Why bring up this history now? I do so, because I see troubling parallels between what happened in 2008 and what is happening now, parallels that make me concerned that a too narrow focus on preventing inflation expectations from being unanchored could lead to unpleasant and unnecessary consequences.

First, in 2008, the WTI price of oil rose by nearly 50% between March and July, while in 2021-22 the WTI oil price rose by over 75% between December 2021 and April 2022. Both episodes of rising oil prices clearly depressed real GDP growth. Second, in both 2008 and 2021-22, the rising oil price caused actual, and, very likely, expected rates of inflation to rise. Third, in 2008, the dollar appreciated from $1.59/euro on July 15 to $1.39/euro on September 12, while, in 2022, the dollar has appreciated from $1.14/euro on February 11 to $1.05/euro on April 29.

In 2008, an inflationary burst, fed in part by rapidly rising oil prices, led to a passive tightening of monetary policy, manifested in dollar appreciation in forex markets, plunging an economy, burdened with a fragile financial system carrying overvalued assets, and already in recession, into a financial crisis. This time, even steeper increases in oil prices, having fueled an initial burst of inflation during the recovery from a pandemic/supply-side recession, were later reinforced by further negative supply shocks stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The complex effects of both negative supply-shocks and excess aggregate demand have caused monetary policy to shift from ease to restraint, once again manifested in dollar appreciation in foreign-exchange markets.

In September 2008, the Fed, focused narrowly on inflation, was oblivious to the looming financial crisis as deflationary forces, amplified by the passive monetary tightening of the preceding two months, were gathering. This time, although monetary tightening to reign in excess aggregate demand is undoubtedly appropriate, signs of ebbing inflationary pressure are multiplying, and many forecasters are predicting that inflation will subside to 4% or less by year’s end. Modest further tightening to reduce aggregate demand to a level consistent with a 2% inflation rate might be appropriate, but the watchword for policymakers now should be caution.

While there is little reason to think that the US economy and financial system are now in as precarious a state as they were in the summer of 2008, a decision to raise the target Fed Funds rate by more than 50 basis points as a demonstration of the Fed’s resolve to hold the line on inflation would certainly be ill-advised, and an increase of more than 25 basis points would now be imprudent.

The preliminary report on first-quarter 2022 GDP, presented a mixed picture of the economy. A small drop in real GDP seems like an artefact of technical factors, and an upward revision seems likely with no evidence yet of declining employment or slack in the labor market. While noiminal GDP growth declined substantially in the first quarter from the double-digit growth rate in 2021, it is above the rate consistent with the 2% inflation rate that remains the Fed’s policy target. However, given the continuing risks of further negative supply-side shocks while the war in Ukraine continues, the Fed should not allow the nominal growth rate of GDP to fall below the 5% rate that ought to remain the short-term target under current conditions.

If the Fed is committed to a policy target of 2% average inflation over a suitably long time horizon, the rate of nominal GDP growth need not fall below 5% before normal peacetime economic conditions have been restored. Until a return to normalcy, avoiding the risk of reducing nominal GDP growth below a 5% rate should have priority over quickly reducing inflation to the targeted long-run average rate. To do otherwise would increase the risk that inadvertent policy mistakes in an uncertain economic environment might cause sufficient financial distress to tip the economy into recession and even another financial crisis. Better safe than sorry.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. 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.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner


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