Archive for the 'James Bullard' Category

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.


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!


Bullard Defends the Indefensible

James Bullard, the President of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, is a very fine economist, having worked his way up the ranks at the St. Louis Fed after joining the research department at the St. Louis Fed in 1990, as newly minted Ph. D. from Indiana University, publishing his research widely in leading journals (and also contributing an entry on “learning” to Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia which I edited). Bullard may just be the most centrist member of the FOMC (see here), and his pronouncements on monetary policy are usually measured and understated, eschewing the outspoken style of some of his colleagues (especially the three leading inflation hawks on the FOMC, Charles Plosser, Jeffrey Lacker, and Richard Fisher).

But even though Bullard is a very sensible and knowledgeable guy, whose views I take seriously, I am having a lot of trouble figuring out what he was up to in the op-ed piece he published in today’s Financial Times (“Patience needed for Fed’s dual mandate”) in which he argued that the fact that the Fed has persistently undershot its inflation target while unemployment has been way over any reasonable the rate consistent with full employment, is no reason for the Fed to change its policy toward greater ease.  In other words, Bullard sees no reason why the Fed should now  seek, or at least tolerate, an inflation rate that temporarily meets or exceeds the Fed’s current 2% target. In a recent interview, Bullard stated that he would not have supported the decision to embark on QE3.

To support his position, Bullard cites a 2007 paper in the American Economic Review by Smets and Wouters “Shocks and Frictions in US Business Cycles.” The paper estimates a DSGE model of the US economy and uses it to generate out-of-sample predictions that are comparable to those of a Bayesian vector autoregression model. Here’s how Bullard characterizes the rationale for QE3 and explains how that rationale is undercut by the results of the Smets and Wouters paper.

The Fed has a directive that calls for it to maintain stable prices as well as maximum employment, along with moderate long-term interest rates. Since unemployment is high by historical standards (8.1 per cent), observers argue the Fed must not be “maximising employment”. Inflation, as measured by the personal consumption expenditures deflator price index, has increased to about 1.3 per cent in the year to July. The Fed’s target is 2 per cent, so critics can say the Fed has not met this part of the mandate. When unemployment is above the natural rate, they say, inflation should be above the inflation target, not below.

I disagree. So does the economic literature. Here is my account of where we are: the US economy was hit by a large shock in 2008 and 2009. This lowered output and employment far below historical trend levels while reducing inflation substantially below 2 per cent. The question is: how do we expect these variables to return to their long-run or targeted values under monetary policy? That is, should the adjustment path be relatively smooth, or should we expect some overshooting?

Evidence, for example a 2007 paper by Frank Smets and Raf Wouters, suggests that it is reasonable to believe that output, employment and inflation will return to their long-run or targeted values slowly and steadily. In the jargon, we refer to this type of convergence as “monotonic”: a shock knocks the variables off their long-run values but they gradually return, without overshooting on the other side. Wild dynamics would be disconcerting.

What is wrong with Bullard’s argument? Well, just because Smets and Wouters estimated a DSGE model in 2007 that they were able to use to generate “good” out-of-sample predictions does not prove that the model would generate good out-of-sample predictions for 2008-2012. Maybe it does, I don’t know. But Bullard is a very smart economist, and he has a bunch of very smart economists economists working for him. Have they used the Smets and Wouters DSGE model to generate out-of-sample predictions for 2008 to 2012? I don’t know. But if they have, why doesn’t Bullard even mention what they found?

Bullard says that the Smets and Wouters paper “suggests that it is reasonable to believe that output, employment and inflation will return to their long-run or targeted values slowly and steadily.” Even if we stipulate to that representation of what the paper shows, that is setting the bar very low. Bullard’s representation calls to mind a famous, but often misunderstood, quote by a dead economist.

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

Based on a sample that included no shock to output, employment, and inflation of comparable magnitude to the shock experienced in 2008-09, Bullard is prepared to opine confidently that we are now on a glide path headed toward the economy’s potential output, toward full employment, and toward 2% inflation.  All we need is patience. But Bullard provides no evidence, not even a simulation based on the model that he says that he is relying on, that would tell us how long it will take to reach the end state whose realization he so confidently promises.  Nor does he provide any evidence, not even a simulation based on the Smets-Wouters model — a model that, as far as I know, has not yet achieved anything like canonical status — estimating what the consequences of increasing the Fed’s inflation target would be, much less the consequences of changing the policy rule underlying Smets-Wouters model from inflation targeting to something like a price-level target or a NGDP target. And since the Lucas Critique tells us that a simulation based on a sample in which one policy rule was being implemented cannot be relied upon to predict the consequences of adopting a different policy rule from that used in the original estimation, I have no idea how Bullard can be so confident about what the Smets and Wouters paper can teach us about adopting QE3.

PS  In the comment below Matt Rognlie, with admirable clearness and economy, fleshes out my intuition that the Smets-Wouters paper provides very little empirical support for the proposition that Bullard is arguing for in his FT piece.  Many thanks and kudos to Matt for his contribution.

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.


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