The Three Big Questions Janet Yellen Should Answer in Today's Testimony

Feb 11, 2014Mike Konczal

Janet Yellen has her first Humphrey-Hawkins testimony today, where she’ll give a prepared speech, already released online, and testify before the Republican-controlled House Financial Services committee. What are the points that she’ll need to cover?

The first element is how and when she’ll manage the so-called “taper” of monetary policy. At the end of 2012, the Federal Reserve started an extensive program of monetary stimulus designed to boost the economy. They declared that this would stay in full effect until unemployment dropped to 6.5 percent.

We are close to hitting that threshold. The unemployment rate is at 6.6 percent, and will fall below 6.5 percent very soon. Yellen, in her testimony, emphasizes a broader picture of unemployment than just the headline rate, including the amount of people working part-time against their choice and the amount of long-term unemployed.

What’s even more interesting, and a bit new, is her statement that “it likely will be appropriate to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate well past the time that the unemployment rate declines below 6-1/2 percent, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the 2 percent goal.”

Hopefully Congress will ask her to consider these choices in light of the last two weak job reports. Isn’t it more appropriate to step on the gas rather than test the brakes? However, she’ll likely encounter a skeptical Congress, and as such it will be essential for Yellen to make the case that the weak job numbers, combined with the vagueness of what the headline unemployment rate is telling us, requires continued monetary action.

The second point is how she'll handle financial reform. Given that Yellen is considered a monetary dove, it’s been interesting to see the amount of questions she’s taken from Congress about where Dodd-Frank and other reforms stand. This will no doubt continue into this testimony.

Financial reform has hit an interesting point where much of the rule-writing from the Dodd-Frank Act is finished, and now there’s a transition to both enforcement and clean-up action. Yellen notes in her testimony that rules related to derivatives as well as capital requirements still remain in the works. It would be useful for Congress to ask her where she thinks capital requirements for the largest firms should ultimately end up. Does she think that this number is too high, or too low?

It would also be fascinating for someone to ask Yellen about the recent wave of “postal banking” coverage, and the role the government can play in providing essential banking services to unbanked and underbanked Americans.

The third and most important is how the Federal Reserve will transition to prevent periods of mass unemployment like we are currently experiencing. Is a 2 percent inflation target either high enough, or the right target, for the job?

Sadly, this will be the topic least covered of them all. However, it’s the one that is most essential for preventing the economy from falling back into the situation it now finds itself in.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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