Stanford University economist John Taylor, author of the famous “Taylor rule,” joined that growing chorus of critics in his own remarks at Jackson Hole. The Taylor rule tells the Fed how to set interest rates based on how far inflation is from its target, how far unemployment is from its natural level, and the long-run “neutral” interest rate.
Using an econometric model, Mr. Taylor says the Taylor rule would have told the Fed to raise the federal funds rate from 1.75 % in 2001 to 5.25% by mid-2005. Housing starts, around 1.6 million in 2001, would have peaked at 1.8 million (annual rate) in early 2004 then begun a gentle decline. In reality, the Fed cut the rate to 1% in 2003, then began raising it in 2004, only reaching 5.25% in mid-2006. Housing starts soared to 2.1 million by early last year and have since plummeted, to around 1.5 million. “A higher funds path would have avoided much of the housing boom … The reversal of the boom and thereby the resulting market turmoil would not have been as sharp,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor acknowledges the Fed had good reasons to err on the side of easy policy and that low long-term interest rates also boosted housing. But he argues long-term rates were low in part because investors may have seen the Fed’s easy policy as evidence of a permanent de-emphasis of inflation, making long term rates less responsive to the Fed. The lesson, he says, is that when the Fed departs from business-as-usual, as risk management caused it to do in 2002-2004, it can be “difficult for market participants to deal with and lead to surprising changes in the economy.”
JMK in the comments section asks a follow-up question to John Taylor's remarks:
"If the Fed was perceived to be less inflation-averse, wouldn't that lead to higher long-term rates, according to Fisher theory of nominal rates... ?"
My understanding is that John Taylor is invoking the expectation theory of interest rates--long term rates are the average of expected short term rates--to explain why long term rates were unusually low during the period in question. He is arguing that the Fed's incredibly lax monetary policy between 2002 and 2005 may have been interpreted by the market as meaning the Fed is permanently less inflation averse than it was before. Consequently, in the future the Fed would be less likely to respond to inflationary pressures and increase its short term policy rate. Given the expectation theory, this change would also mean long term interest rates would be less likely to go up as much either.
John Taylor's speech can be found here.