What Constrains the Federal Reserve? An Interview with Joseph Gagnon

Jun 4, 2012Mike Konczal

There's a growing consensus right now that the Federal Reserve could be doing more to bring about a stronger recovery given its current powers. It's even more relevant in light of the recent weakening of the recovery, as shown in the poor job numbers that came out last Friday. But there's a lot of disagreement and confusion about the constraints that prevent the Federal Reserve from taking more action. It's even more confusing given Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's past research, where he described the Bank of Japan falling into “self-induced paralysis.” Some believe the constraints are political, others believe they are related to fighting among the various governors, and there are those that believe Bernanke is comfortable with monetary policy as it is.

In order to make sense of the various constraints the Federal Reserve faces, I spoke with Joseph Gagnon, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, over the weekend. Gagnon was an associate director for the Federal Reserve’s Division of Monetary Affairs and Division of International Finance, where he was involved with the execution of QE1. I last spoke with Gagnon on the issue of QE3 last summer.

Mike Konczal: Let's start with the basics. Does a random person -- not at the highest levels, but among those who make up most of the researchers and workers -- at the Federal Reserve think that the Fed is "out of ammo"? What are their opinions on how well previous expansionary monetary policy at the zero bound, like QE2 and Operation Twist, have worked to bolster the economy?

Joseph Gagnon: Let me start by linking to a blog post from a former classmate at his new blog, Miles Kimball’s Balance Sheet Monetary Policy: A Primer, that spells out what the Fed could do and why it would work. However, he ignores some of the legal restrictions on what the Fed can do. (See below.)

My sense is that most Fed economists believe that the Fed does have substantial, though not unlimited, ammo. They also believe QE1, QE2, Operation Twist, and the language concerning future policy intentions (staying near zero interest rates through late 2014) had significant positive economic effects, but not apparently large enough to achieve the rapid recovery that is desired.

Basically, the Fed has run out of ammo in terms of language about future policy intentions because it cannot credibly signal its intentions for more than two to three years ahead. It can extend the “late 2014” horizon into 2015, but that is fairly minor.

In terms of the asset purchases, the Fed is limited by law to the Treasury, agency, and agency MBS markets plus foreign exchange. Buying foreign exchange would be viewed as economic warfare by many countries, so it is probably ruled out even though it reflects rank hypocrisy on the part of foreign governments that are massively buying dollars. In the Treasury market, yields on three-year notes are only 0.3 percent, so the Fed must buy five-year to 30-year bonds to have any effect. With the 10-year yield at 1.5 percent, the scope for further effects is modest. Even if the Fed bought every 10-year Treasury, it would be hard to get the yield much below 1 percent, because the risks on such a bond become tremendously skewed toward future losses. There is more scope to buy agency MBS to lower the mortgage rate, but already mortgage rates are at a record low of 3.75 percent. At some point between 2 and 3 percent we are likely to reach the limit. So, the Fed has quite a bit of ammo left, but we can see that it is not inexhaustible.  

Research I am doing suggests that it would be much more attractive for the Fed to buy a broad basket of U.S. equities to support the stock market than to try to push down bond yields from these already low levels. Sadly, the Fed is not authorized to buy equities, even though other central banks are allowed to do so.

MK: A story is circulating that there has been a lot of internal disagreements among the members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), and this has prevented Bernanke, who wants to have consensus on the votes, from expanding further. You see this idea in the series of three dissenting votes against more action throughout much of 2011 and the lack of dissenting votes for more action until Charles Evans' in late 2011. Is it your sense that the FOMC composition has held the Federal Reserve in check on expansion?

JG: The hawks will never get more than three votes. This year only one hawk has a vote. Chairman Bernanke and his close allies (Yellen, Dudley, Pianalto, Williams, Tarullo, Stein, and Raskin) have a comfortable majority.

MK: A lot of economics writers assume that Bernanke is uncomfortable with non-unanimous votes and just the presence of vocal, hawkish votes has constrained how far he is willing to go with expansionary actions. Have those divisions held expansion in check in the past, even if there are fewer hawks now? And would more doves on vacant FOMC seats have made a difference in 2009?

JG: I think Bernanke had some preference for unanimous decisions, but not a strong preference. I expect there will be dissents all year. I don’t think mere voting support would have made much difference in 2009 because Bernanke knew he could get whatever he wanted. But a strong discussion leader in favor of greater ease might have made some difference if he was persuasive enough. I believe Bernanke is intellectually much closer to the doves than the hawks, but he and some of the other doves are more cautious than the hawks.

MK: What's your sense of how the economics profession broadly reacts to the idea that the Federal Reserve could be doing more? Do you think a generic economist thinks the Fed could be doing more and isn't, or that the Fed is "out of ammo" in how it can expand the economy?

JG: I think the average economist outside the Fed thinks the Fed has less ammo than the average economist inside the Fed. I frequently hear people say the Fed has done all it can do. I do not agree, but I do see a limit approaching. Note that that limit arises from legal restrictions on the Fed. If the Fed were empowered to buy all assets, it would never run out of ammo.

MK: Others point to political pressure, especially from the right. There have been rhetorical moves, such as Rick Perry saying he’d treat the Federal Reserve "pretty ugly." There is the blocking of nominees, such as Peter Diamond being blocked because “[h]e supports QE2.” And it also has to do with conservative political infrastructure. The Club for Growth put whether or not Republicans supported Peter Diamond for the FOMC on their checklists for proper Republican behavior.

How much does political pressure place a constraint on the Federal Reserve's ability to do more expansion?

JG: Chairman Bernanke would deny that political pressure influences his vote, and he even went out of his way to make a public appearance in Texas after Rick Perry made his threat. But FOMC members all read the papers. They see the virulent opposition to their policies on the right and the silence on the left. (Paul Krugman is a big exception, but he is not a politician.) They want to avoid any Congressional action that would reduce their independence in the future, in part because they think this might lead to even worse economic outcomes than we are currently experiencing.  I think they should stick to achieving their current mandate and not fail to achieve it out of fear of what a future Congress might do. In my view, Congress and the president are solely responsible for making laws and the Fed is solely responsible for achieving its mandate. But I am pretty sure some FOMC members either consciously or unconsciously disagree with me and shade their actions out of this concern.  

MK: Is it a question of balance? I've noticed that there is little political pressure from liberals on the Fed for more expansionary policy. Is it a matter of there being little countervailing pressure?

JG: I think it would help if politicians on the left criticized the Fed more strongly for failing to achieve its employment mandate.

MK: A very popular theory in the financial blogosphere is that the inflation target functions as a ceiling, not an actual target. Ryan Avent has argued that the Fed goes into action to prevent deflation, but once inflation expectations approach 2 percent it pulls back. Matthew O'Brien at the Atlantic Monthly has referred to a 2 percent ceiling as the new cross of gold. And Greg Mankiw has written, “If Chairman Bernanke ever suggested increasing inflation to, say, 4 percent, he would quickly return to being Professor Bernanke.”

Is the 2 percent "ceiling" a serious constraint, and why?

JG: The Fed has said 2 percent is the target, not the ceiling, but I agree that their actions over the past three years are not consistent with their statements. I think we should be willing to accept temporarily higher inflation if that would help to reduce unemployment faster. Indeed, combining actions like QE with an announced willingness to accept temporarily higher inflation could create a synergy that would increase the potency of QE (by reducing the real interest rate). But I fear that announcing a goal of higher inflation, either temporary or permanent, will not actually do anything unless it is backed by actions.

Also, I do not think we should permanently raise the inflation target. It is not necessary to do that to get more monetary stimulus and it would jeopardize the hard-won war on inflation of the past two decades.

MK: There’s the idea that, in the past, economists believed a lack of explicit inflation target gave central banks flexibility, but it doesn't seem that we've seen this flexibility.

JG: The general view is that you do not make up periods of being above or below target, you simply always strive to get back to the target. The problem is that the Fed is not taking this approach equally to unemployment and inflation.

Some have argued for a price path target or a nominal GDP path target. In that case you do make up for past deviations in inflation. But I think it is difficult to explain to the public how the specific path is chosen. Why should the CPI be 105 in 2013, 107 in 2014, 109 in 2015, and so on indefinitely? People care about the inflation rate not, some arbitrary price level. And it means that after booms you must have deflation. Indeed, if one had started the path in the early 1990s, the late 1990s boom would have put us way above it. Then the Fed would have had to make the 2001 recession much more severe to get us back on the path. That would have been a tough sell politically.

MK: There are those that think Bernanke should be much more explicit in declaring expectations. This became a big idea recently after an article by Paul Krugman said that Ben Bernanke has abandoned the insights of Professor Bernanke. Bernanke is essentially doing things that the Fed can't fail at instead of the things he proposed Japan should do in a similar downturn. What's your take on this disagreement?

JG: I think it is sensible for the Fed to stick to statements about things it is confident it can achieve, provided that it feels it is doing enough to achieve its objectives. For example, it can talk about purchasing MBS and pushing down the mortgage rate, thus stimulating the economy. The problem is that it has not achieved its objectives over the past three years and its own forecast shows it does not expect to achieve its objectives over the next three years. My advice is to take stronger actions of the type already taken. But if the scope for doing that runs out, then the Fed has to try riskier actions, including those of the type Paul Krugman described. Among those actions, I would tend to favor those for which the Fed has direct tools, such as buying foreign exchange to push down the dollar, rather than trying to raise inflation expectations by verbal jawboning.

MK: Finally, there are those who think that Bernanke is pretty happy with the rate of recovery and is mostly focused on downside risks. As Bernanke said at his recent press conference, "the question is does it make sense to actively seek a higher inflation rate in order to achieve a slightly increased pace of reduction in the unemployment rate? The view of the committee is that that would be very reckless." Is this, by itself, a significant barrier to future monetary expansion?

JG: Yes, this is a significant barrier. I think it reflects ill-defined concerns about the costs of taking more action to reduce unemployment faster. Some Wall Street economists fear that more aggressive Fed action now will give rise to more inflation in the future, but no Fed economist I know agrees with that. The Fed knows how to fight inflation and there is no reason that policy actions now need to cause excess inflation later. Another concern might be that expanding the Fed’s balance sheet will expose it to greater losses in the future when interest rates eventually rise (because higher interest rates will reduce the value of the bonds the Fed holds).

But the Fed’s mandate does not include maximizing profits. From the point of view of the United States, what matters is the consolidated government balance sheet (Fed + Treasury), and there is no way that QE can do anything but reduce our national debt burden. Any future losses by the Fed would be more than matched by gains to the Treasury.

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