I have an editorial at the Financial Times online here on monetary policy. It responds to Raghuram Rajan's editorial against "progressive economists" calling for the Federal Reserve to do more (same link, unguarded here.) The essay is reprinted here, but go check it out at the FT's webpage. Enjoy!
In 1926, John Maynard Keynes attacked socialist ideas for being “little better than a dusty survival of a plan to meet the problems of fifty years ago, based on a misunderstanding of what someone [Karl Marx] said a hundred years ago.” Right now the monetary policy debate in the US is centered on answering the problems of 30 years ago – when inflation and unemployment were both at high levels – based on a misunderstanding of what someone said 50 years ago: Milton Friedman.
The problem at the core of the US economy is that interest rates have been too high since the recession started. However, the Fed is not in a straightjacket. It has the tools to get the economy going again and must put them to use. The absence of pressure on the Fed, which has received only one dissenting vote demanding more stimulus but several to tighten earlier, to do more to reduce unemployment speaks to an intellectual paralysis as challenging as the orthodoxy of the gold standard and balanced budgets in the Great Depression.
The Fed uses monetary policy to balance unemployment and inflation. It has typically done this with an inflation “target”. But the target metaphor is inaccurate; it functions far more like a “ceiling.” People aim for targets but can go over them. Yet what we’ve seen over the last five years is that rather than a balance between its two goals, the Federal Reserve supports the economy up until the point where it is near the inflation target, and thereafter backs down from monetary stimulus. The market understands this and output remains equivalently depressed.
The Fed is fighting the last war: against 1970s stagflation. It is of course essential that the Fed maintains its hard-won credibility against runaway inflation. But the best way to do so isn’t to keep the economy in a perpetual state of high unemployment. It is to be explicit in what it wants to see accomplished and what it is willing to tolerate in order to get it. As Charles Evans, President of the Chicago Federal Reserve, recently pointed out, the Fed could “make a simple conditional statement of policy accommodation relative to our dual mandate responsibilities.” An “Evans Rule” would mean the Fed would agree to keep interest rates at zero and tolerate 3 per cent average inflation until unemployment went down to 7 per cent, setting market expectations in such a way that would allow aggregate demand to surge.
If conventional monetary policy was available – if interest rates were at 1 per cent instead of zero per cent – Mr Rajan’s argument suggests he wouldn’t lower interest rates further. Even though inflation has been lower than the target for several years, and unemployment is significantly higher than it should be, his editorial suggests he believes interest rates are already too low. Lower rates will not help the unemployed, since unemployment is localised. As he puts it, people are out of work in Las Vegas, but lower interest rates will increase demand in New York. So we won’t see increased employment, just savers “coerced” into buying risky bonds.
Contrary to Mr Rajan’s argument, the crisis is a national one. The median state’s unemployment rate is 1.65 times higher than it was before the recession began. New York has an unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent, up from its pre-recession rate of 4.7 per cent. Meanwhile, as Edward Luce wrote in the Financial Times yesterday, “risk capital is far harder to come by”. If lower rates would, as Mr Rajan says, increase demand for riskier assets, that’s exactly what the economy needs.
This would help with our current dilemma, but the Fed must also change its future approach to monetary policy. It has failed to balance inflation and growth, especially in periods of low inflation. Our low inflation target doesn’t work precisely at the moment when we most need it. Changing the target to inflation and growth added together, or what economists call NGDP (nominal gross domestic product), would better balance these goals. Alternatively, moving to a higher inflation target, say 4 per cent a year, would give the Fed much more room to fight recessions. Four per cent was the average annual rate during much of the past 30 years. The costs of a higher target would be minimal. Given that the cost of the current recession is in the trillions of dollars, this demands serious reconsideration.
It seems like a radical statement to some to note that the Fed has the ability to bring us closer to full employment with little risk and is simply choosing not to do it. They believe the Fed is full of disinterested technocrats doing the best they can. No doubt those at the Fed believe they are trying hard, but if the situation was reversed, with unemployment at ultra-low rates and inflation well above what anybody could possibly want, they would be working overtime to try and fix the problem. Chairman Bernanke, when he was a scholar of Japan, understood that a central bank could end up in a situation of “self-induced paralysis,” like where our current Federal Reserve is. And Milton Friedman himself, who people arguing against looser monetary policy would like to invoke, also understood that the Bank of Japan had “no limit” on closing output gaps if “it wishes to do so.”
Commentators would like to argue that monetary policy rewards some people over others, forgetting that mass unemployment is the most regressive policy imaginable. But beyond that, monetary policy is not a morality play, and it’s not about rewarding the good people and punishing the bad ones. It’s about stabilising growth, prices and maximum employment without overheating the system or letting it choke to death from a lack of oxygen. Now, more than ever, a commitment to both goals is necessary for the good of our economy.