Sunday, March 30, 2014

Should We Be Worried?

A number of Fed watchers see the last FOMC meeting signalling a tightening of monetary policy.  Tim Duy, for example, sees it in the FOMC's effective lowering of its inflation target via the dropping of the Evans Rule:
[A] hawkish interpretation... starts with the end of the Evans rule. Everyone seems focused on the unemployment part of the Evans rule, while my attention is on the inflation part. The Evans rule allowed for the Fed to reach their inflation target from above. It provided wiggle room on the target as long as unemployment was above 6.5%. With the end of the Evans rule, the Fed sends a signal that they no longer find it acceptable to reach the target from above. They intend to reach it from below. 2% is officially once again a ceiling.
Others see it in the moving forward on the calendar of the first federal funds rate hike as seen in the FOMC projections or in the shifting of the FOMC conversation to when the policy rate hike will occur. Here is Ylan Q. Mui:
The nation’s central bank said Wednesday it will look at a broad swath of indicators... as it determines when to raise rates for the first time since the recession hit. The deliberately vague wording is a retreat from the Fed’s concrete promise to leave rates untouched. Though they disagree on when to act... the statement signals the moment has finally come within striking distance.
Gavyn Davies sees these developments as part of a longer tightening cycle that has been going on for some time:
[I]n a wider sense there has been an unmistakable shift in the FOMC’s centre of gravity in the past few months. The key to this shift is that the mainstream doves who have dominated policy decisions in the past few years have now essentially stopped arguing against either the tapering of the balance sheet or the start of rate hikes within about a year from now.
I found this interesting because on one hand we would expect some pulling back of monetary policy as the economy recovers. In this case, we would not call it tightening, but adjusting the stance of monetary policy to its new neutral position. For example, as the the economy recovers the market-clearing or 'natural' interest rate will rise. The Fed could be simply indicating its plans to match the expected rise in the natural interest rate. Doing so would not be tightening. On the other hand, it is possible the Fed is getting ahead of itself and pulling back too fast. In this case, the Fed would be rising its target policy rate higher than the expected natural interest rate. If so, this would begin choking off the the recovery.

So which one is it? Over the past few months I have been leaning toward the former view. I believed the Fed was not tightening policy, but simply adjusting it to match the recovery. Lately, though, I am not as certain. What gave me pause were the two figures below. The first one shows the bond market forecast of average annual inflation over the next years:

The figure shows that since Bernanke's initial tapering talk the inflation forecasts have fallen from 2.3% to about 1.8%. That is a sustained 50 basis point drop. I do not see any evidence in the productivity numbers to indicate the expected inflation decline is from productivity gains, so it leaves me thinking that the bond market sees lower nominal spending ahead. If so, Gavyn Davies is right that the recent FOMC meeting is part of a larger tightening cycle.

The second figure shows the year-on-year growth rate of the Divisa M4 money supply. This is a measure of money that includes both retail and institutional money assets. It also accounts for the different degrees of liquidity of the assets in its construction. This series started declining before Bernanke's taper talk, but has continued to be on a downward trend ever since. If it continues we could be looking at a burgeoning excess money demand problem.

One interpretation could be that the monetary policy tightening implied by the breakeven graph above is leading to less inside money creation as the economic outlook gradually weakens. The March FOMC meeting would be a continuation of this tightening cycle. The problem with this view is that I have a hard time finding other indicators that point to economic weakening ahead. Yes, one can point to evidence that there is still slack in the economy, but it is harder to find evidence that the slack is increasing. Maybe bond markets are simply pricing the 2% upper ceiling that has been in the FOMC central tendency forecasts. Also, the M4 growth decline could be due to regulatory contraction in institutional money assets. These charts may be red herrings, but they do give me pause. These type of declines in the past signaled future economic weakness. Should we be worried now?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Market Monetarism and Endogenous Money?

Yesterday, I was interviewed by  Erin Ade for the show Boom Bust. She asked me, among things, whether I believed money was endogenously created. If so, was my belief consistent with Market Monetarism? My answer was that inside money creation--money created by banks and other financial firms--is endogenous, but the Fed shapes in an important way the macroeconomic environment in which money gets created. Consequently, the Fed influences the creation of inside money. So yes, I believe endogenous money is consistent with Market Monetarist views.

To further unpack this idea, I want bring up a point I have repeatedly made here: open market operations (OMOs) and helicopter drops will only spur aggregate demand growth if they are expected to be permanent.1 This idea is not original to Market Monetarists and has been made by others including Paul Krugman, Michael Woodford, and  Alan Auerback and Maurice Obstfeld. Market Monetarists have been advocating a NGDP level target (NGDPLT) over the past five years for this very reason. It implies a commitment to permanently increase the monetary base, if needed.2

So why exactly are permanent injections so important and how does this relate to endogenous money creation? From a monetarist perspective, the permanent expansion of the monetary base will lead to permanently higher nominal incomes in the future. Given there is a negative output gap, the expectation of higher future nominal income from such an injection should also create expectations of higher real economic growth. This belief should lead households and firms to increase their spending today. In the process, asset prices rise, risk premiums fall, and financial intermediation increases. From a New Keynesian perspective, the higher future price level implied by the permanent injection would result a temporary bout of higher-than-normal inflation that would lower real interest rates down to their market clearing level. Once that happened the increased spending, lower risk premiums, and increased financial intermediation would occur.

Now let's expand on that last point. The permanent monetary base increase will lead to increased financial intermedation. For example, banks will start providing more loans as the improved economic outlook makes households and firms appear as better credit risks. Likewise households and firms will start demanding more credit. All of this leads to the creation of financial firm liabilities that function as money. In short, a permanent increase in the monetary base will lead to more inside money creation.

Below is a figure that tries to reflect this story. It shows the central bank (CB) doing a permanent monetary base injection that affects the expected path of monetary policy. These injections are exogenously determined by the central bank as it decides where it wants the economy to go in terms of inflation, the output gap, or in my ideal world NGDP. These exogenous changes in the path of monetary policy alter economic expectations and therefore shape how inside money is endogenously created.

Now some may object that during normal times the monetary base is endogenously determined for interest rate-targeting central banks. After all, for a given interest rate target central banks will accommodate changes in the demand for reserves. This is true in the short run, but not far beyond that. As noted above, central banks ultimately care about inflation and output gaps and consequently will adjust interest rates over time to hit their inflation and output gap objectives. Such changes in interest rates mean changes in the supply of bank reserves. Stated differently, it implies a different degree of policy accommodation to changes in the demand for bank reserves. These changes, then, mean the central bank is exogenously changing the path of the monetary base.

Let me illustrates this point with two extreme cases. Consider the implicit Taylor rule for the United States during the Great Inflation of the 1970s and the Taylor Rule for the ECB over the past few years. The parameters on the inflation term (which measure to degree to which policymakers respond to changes in inflation) were very different. For the United States the parameter was very low and at the ECB it has been very high. These different inflation parameters were exogenous policy choices and determined the very different paths of the monetary base for these two economies. So even with an interest rate-targeting regime, the path of the monetary base is ultimately determined by the central bank.

Now lets return to the original question posed by Erin Ade. Market Monetarism, in my view, is consistent with inside money creation being endogenous. Because of this understanding, we believe the Fed should create a macroeconomic environment that is conducive to financial firms creating the optimal amount of money. We believe a NGDPLT does just that since it is stabilizing, by definition, the product of the money supply and money velocity.

Update: This statement is not quite right: "These changes, then, mean the central bank is exogenously changing the path of the monetary base." The central bank does independently change the path of the monetary base as it responds to changes in the economy, but this path change is itself endogenous to its central bank's ultimate target. All variables other than the target variable are ultimately endogenously determined. The exogenously chosen nominal target variable, however, does constrain the endogeneity of all other nominal variables. Or, as Francis Coppola nicely put it, "Endogeneity itself is exogenously constrained."

P.S. Erin Ade interviewed Scott Sumner too on the program. Here is the link for the full program.

1Also, it is assumed the monetary base injection will not be sterilized by further increases in IOR.
2It is likely that a NGDPLT, through its influence on expectations, will raises the velocity of the monetary base. In this case, the permanent increase in the monetary base will be small. Nonetheless, it is the threat to permanently change the monetary base as much as needed that is the key catalyst here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ad Hoc Monetary Policy

One of the defining features of U.S. monetary policy over the past five years has been its incredibly ad hoc nature. Over this time, the FOMC has conducted monetary policy with a spate of make-it-up-as-we-go-along programs (QE1, QE2, Operation Twist, QE3, and the Evans Rule) that it hoped would spur a robust recovery. These programs did get progressively better as they became more state dependent, but they were often implemented and ended in a haphazard fashion. This stop-go approach to monetary policy was politically costly and prevented the Fed from fully utilizing its ability to manage expectations of future nominal growth. 

A great example of the Fed's ad hoc management of monetary policy is the tapering of QE3. Former Fed chair Bernanke announced it in the Spring of 2013, but the Fed kept the markets guessing for almost nine months as to when it would actually begin. And once it got started, some FOMC members were still uncertain about how much to do. Consider also the Evans Rule. It was implemented to firmly shape expectations about the future path of the federal funds rate. It was, in other words, created to increase certainty. However, when the unemployment threshold in the Evans Rule was no longer was consistent with FOMC preferences, the FOMC simply dropped it. So much for certainty. With decision making like this, FOMC officials themselves are uncertain as to what they will be deciding at the next meeting.

Ramesh Ponnuru observes this same erratic behavior and concludes that is the reason for Fed's communication problems:
the [Fed's] muddled communications aren't a gaffe. They reflect a muddled policy. The markets are obsessed with every syllable Yellen utters because they're so unsure about what the Fed is going to do. Its behavior is difficult to predict. It has acted in an ad hoc way for the past several years and has never bound itself to any rule.


What the Fed instead said last week is that its policies "will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments." There is nothing here that constrains the Fed's decisions or offers much guidance to those seeking to predict them. The statement might as well have added "the price of gold" or "the gut feelings of the Fed's open market committee" to its list of indicators.
Unfortunately, the muddled communication did not end with the Bernanke Fed. In Janet Yellen's first meeting as Fed Chair this month, she was dismissive of the interest rate projections shown in the FOMC's dot-plot figures. These figures showed that the FOMC's consensus view on the first interest rate hikes have moved up on the calendar. The FOMC, therefore, was predicting it would tighten monetary policy sooner than previously expected. In response to a question about this tightening, Yellen told reporters not to take the dot-plots too seriously. Tim Duy did not like this response because of the further confusion it creates:
I think it is absolutely ludicrous that the Fed is trying to claim the dots have no value.  Seriously, can they work any harder to raise the act of bungling their communications strategy to an art form?  If the dots have no value, then why force feed this information to market participants in the first place?
Tim Duy is right. The dot-plots were suppose to improve clarity about the future path of monetary policy. To claim now the dot-plots really do not show the future path only adds more noise to an already weak signal about where monetary policy is heading. Tim Duy notes elsewhere that breakevens--the expected inflation implied from the spread between nominal and real treasury yields--have become more volatile since the crisis. This can be seen in his figure below. Arguably, this too is a consequence of the increased uncertainty surrounding Fed policymaking.

Now to be clear, the point of this post is not that the Fed failed to correctly forecast the future economy. Rather, it is that the Fed failed to clearly spell out how it would systematically respond to differing states of the future economy. For the Fed to truly manage expectations (and therefore fully exploit its influence over economic activity) the public should know with some certainty how the Fed will respond to different economic developments. Over the past five years this certainty has been largely lacking. (The only thing that does seem certain over this period is that Fed wanted core inflation to fall somewhere between 1 and 2 percent. And even this understanding only became apparent in hindsight.)

Now imagine the Fed's monetary stimulus programs during this time had be done in a more systematic and predictable manner.  For example,  assume the Fed had announced a NGDP level target from the start and said asset purchases will continue until a certain level target was hit. There would have been no need to announce up front the large dollar sizes of the asset purchases that attracts so much political criticism. There would also have been no need to announce successive rounds of QE that make it appear the previous rounds did not work.  More importantly, this approach would have more firmly shaped nominal spending and income expectations in a manner conducive to economic recovery. In other words, there was a much easier and more efficient way for the Fed to respond the crisis. FOMC meetings would have been more predictable and consequently less important. We would not be hanging on the every word of our Fed chairs. Fed watchers and bloggers would be far fewer.

It is true that implementing something like a NGDP level target would have used up a lot of the Fed's political capital. Some will conclude, then, that this reality could never have happened. My reply is that it may have politically cheaper for the Fed to do a NGDP level target than it was to do all the impromptu programs it adopted over the past five years. But this is just Monday-morning quarterbacking and not the main point of my post. The key takeaway is that the right-kind of systematic monetary policy would have been far better in the crisis and would be far better moving forward. Instead, it seems that Fed policy is actually going the other direction. It continues to be ad hoc and unsure of itself. This does not bode well for future economic crisis.

Update: Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser makes a similar argument in a recent speech. He notes that forward guidance would be more effective if monetary policy was more systematic and followed some kind of rule. My implicit point above is that a NGDP level target would be just such a rule, as I have argued elsewhere.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Abenomics at the Brookings Institution

Joshua K. Hausman and Johannes F. Wieland presented a paper today on Abenomics at the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity. They focus specifically on the monetary policy portion of Abenomics: the Bank of Japan's new commitment to 2% inflation, open-ended asset purchases, and a doubling of the monetary base. Abenomics is frequently covered on this blog and these authors reach similar conclusions:
We show that Abenomics ended deflation in 2013 and raised long-run inflation expectations. Our estimates suggest that Abenomics also raised 2013 output growth by 0.9 to 1.7 percentage points. Monetary policy alone accounted for up to a percentage point of growth, largely through positive effects on consumption.
They see Abenomics' success coming from its commitment to a new monetary regime, one that credibly moves Japan away from its deflationary past. Like others, they compare Abenomics to FDR's regime change in 1933, but acknowledge it has not proportionally packed as much of a punch. The authors attribute this difference to the relatively small size of Abenomics as well as the Bank of Japan lacking full credibility on its new inflation target. They see the lack of full credibility as a consequence of its monetary history and demographics (i.e. pensioners hate inflation).

This  paper largely fits my priors. However, I do want to comment on a key difference in our views. The authors take a New Keynesian view on how Abenomics works. They see it working by raising expected inflation and lowering the real interest rate. My view is that Abenomics works because it has committed to a permanent expansion of the monetary base which, in turn, has implications for the future price level and future nominal incomes. Here is how I recently made this point in the context of a NGDP level target operating in a slump:
[NGDP level targeting] would create an expectation that some portion of the monetary base growth from the asset purchases would be permanent (and non-sterilized by IOER). That, in turn, would mean a permanently higher price level and nominal income in the future. Such knowledge would cause current investors to rebalance their portfolios away from highly liquid, low-yielding assets towards less liquid, higher yielding assets. The portfolio rebalancing, in turn, would raise asset prices, lower risk premiums, increase financial intermediation, spur more investment spending, and ultimately catalyze a robust recovery in aggregate demand.
While our views may be complimentary, I do think something is lost by focusing too narrowly on the New Keynesian channel. The portfolio rebalancing process I outline above is effectively the same thing as a reduction in the excess demand for money. And excess money demand--broadly defined to include both retail and institutional money assets--in my view is the deeper reason for the slump of the past five years. A permanent, unsterilized injection of the monetary base would have gone a long way in solving this problem. 
The Fed has always said its asset purchases are temporary and the public has bought into this view. Consequently, the Fed's QE programs have not been as effective as they otherwise could be. Here is a figure from an earlier post that makes this point:

Although Hausman and Wieland's credibility discussion alludes to this issue, I wish they had directly discussed the issue of a permanent versus temporary increase in the monetary base . Michael Woodford has stressed this point too. So has Alan Auerback and Maurice Obstfeldt. They formally demonstrate the importance of a permanent monetary base increase in great AER paper that has unfortunately receive far too little attention in recent debates. Here is an excerpt (my bold):
Prevalent thinking about liquidity traps, however, suggests that the perfect substitutability of money and bonds at a zero short-term nominal interest rate renders open-market operations in- effective as a stabilization tool...Yet, our analysis shows... that credibly permanent open- market operations will be beneficial as a stabilization tool as well, even when the economy is expected to remain mired in a liquidity trap for some time. That is, under the same conditions on interest rates that make open- market operations attractive for fiscal purposes, a monetary expansion that markets perceive to be permanent will affect prices and, in the absence of fully flexible prices, output as well...Our analysis suggests that Japanese policymakers should underscore the permanence of past operations, perhaps through an announced inflation target range including positive rates, and may need to increase the monetary base even more.
That last sentence is striking. It is call for Abenomics almost a decade before it was adopted. It would have been nice to seen a discussion of it in the Hausman and Wieland paper. Still, the paper overall is a good read and worth your time. Give it a look.

Addendum: Milton Friedman would probably be happy with Abenomics.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What is the Fed's Real Inflation Target?

In my last post I showed a figure that suggested the Fed has effectively been targeting a 1-2% core PCE inflation range target. If so, it would be consistent with the observations made by Ryan Avent and Matthew Yglesias that the Fed is using 2% as an upper bound on inflation. Here is Ryan Avent back in April, 2012:
The Fed's second failure is to treat the 2% figure as a ceiling rather than a target...[T]he Fed gives a range for projected inflation over the next three years with 2% as the upper extent. The Fed's preferred inflation measure—core PCE inflation—remains below 2%...If the Fed does indeed have a symmetric approach to the target, as Mr Bernanke asserted yesterday, one would expect 2% to be at the middle of the range, not the top. 
In addition to my figure from the last post, the figures below further corroborate this observation. They show the central tendency ranges of inflation forecasts provided by members of the FOMC in the 'projections' material. Not every FOMC meeting has projection materials, but for every meeting that does provide them they are lined up chronologically in the figures.

The first figure shows the inflation range forecasts for the current year at each FOMC meeting. It shows that inflation forecasts ranging between 1%-2%:

The next figure shows the inflation range forecasts for one year ahead at each FOMC meeting. It shows that inflation forecasts never pass 2%:

The final figure shows the inflation range forecast for two years ahead. Except for the December, 2012 FOMC, it too shows an 2% upper bound on inflation forecasts.

So even two years out the FOMC is predicting inflation no higher than 2%. Since the FOMC has some influence on inflation this far out, this forecast reflects beliefs about current and expected Fed policy. It suggests that the FOMC is not taking an symmetric approach to its 2% inflation target. Instead, the FOMC is aiming to error on the side below 2%, at least in its forecasts.

What is interesting is that the treasury market and the Survey of Professional Forecasters all have the average annual inflation rate over the next 10 years just above 2%. These are long-term forecasts so maybe they will all converge over time. 

The President's Economic Report and the Right Counterfactual

A common mistakes observers make when assessing economic policy is that they fail to do the counterfactual of no policy. That is, they fail to consider what the economy would have been like in the absence of the policy. This often happens in critiques of monetary policy. It also happens with critiques of fiscal policy. The new Economic Report of President acknowledges this point:
Evaluating effects of fiscal policy in general, and the Recovery Act in particular, is challenging for several reasons... A key issue is that estimating effects entails comparing what actually happened with what might have happened (what economists call the “counterfactual”)[p.105-106].
The White House believes the proper counterfactual for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is to imagine how much worse off the economy would be in its absence. I am not sure, though, that this is the right counterfactual. For we saw in 2013 that Fed policy offset to some extent the tightening of fiscal policy. This suggests that it might have done more in 2009 had there been no fiscal stimulus. Ramesh Ponnuru, presents this view in a recent Bloomberg article:
To the extent that the central bank has a target for inflation (or nominal spending), and has the power to hit that target, the Fed constrains the power of fiscal policy. If Congress tries to stimulate the economy during a slump, for example, the Fed will offset that stimulus by loosening money less. Some of this offsetting will actually be automatic, based on market expectations that the Fed will stay on target. It's likely that if Congress hadn't enacted a large stimulus, the Fed would have done more quantitative easing early on, lowered interest on reserves or taken some other expansionary step.
This is the 'monetary offset' view that has been made by Scott Sumner. It not really a new argument, but the recent emphasis has been that the Fed will still offset fiscal policy even at the zero lower bound and in a slump if it is committed to its target. It may not do so perfectly, but if the Fed chooses it can still dominate fiscal policy at business cycle horizons. This counterfactual thinking is contentious. John Aziz, for example, responded to the Ponnuru piece with this:
Ponnuru's argument isn't that the stimulus caused the Fed to tighten, but that it would have been looser had there been no fiscal stimulus... The hypothesis that the fiscal stimulus limited the Fed in any way is just not supported by the real world record of what the Fed did... [I]n a huge, once-in-a-generation slump, offsetting expansionary fiscal policy just isn't on the agenda.
Aziz, like many, find it incredulous that the Fed would hold back in 2009 because of the fiscal stimulus. Fed officials would never admit doing this directly, but they would  admit to responding to changes in inflation and employment. Consequently, if fiscal policy influenced inflation or employment it indirectly allowed the Fed to hold back some of its firepower. For a believer in fiscal stimulus like Aziz, the logic is inescapable if the Fed is truly committed to its objectives.

This begs the question of how committed was the Fed to it target?  Officially, the Fed has been a flexible inflation targeter (FIT) with a 2% personal consumption expenditure (PCE) inflation target since January, 2012. Many, including former Fed chair Bernanke, argue it has been a FIT for much longer. Many Fed officials prefer the core PCE inflation measure since it is a better indicator of underlying inflation trends. The question, then, is how committed has the Fed been to its inflation target? Has it been so committed that it was slow to go full throttle in 2009 because of fiscal stimulus?

Below is a figures that sheds some light on this question. It shows the timing of the Fed's QE programs and changes in the core PCE inflation rate. The figure indicates several possibilities. First, the FOMC runs QE programs when core inflation is under 2% and falling. It also suggest that Fed has had an effective 1%-2% target range for core inflation over the past five years. Had there been no fiscal stimulus and had this mattered to core inflation, this figure suggests that the Fed may have done more sooner.

So contrary to Aziz's claim, Ramesh's counterfactual seems perfectly reasonable. Over the past five years the Fed seemingly was committed to targeting a core inflation range of 1%-2%. Consequently, anything that affected core inflation, including fiscal stimulus, also indirectly affected the response of monetary policy.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Gold Standard Was an Accident of History

I recently reviewed Lewis E. Lehrman's book, Money, Gold, and History for the National Review. This book is a compilation of his essays where he calls for a return to an international gold standard. He takes a very sanguine view of its history and how it would work today. Though the classical gold standard of 1870-1914 did work relatively well, the history of gold as money is far more nuanced than portrayed by Lehrman. Here is an excerpt of my review where I touch on this point:
Consider, first, the history of the gold standard. Though Lehrman claims that the gold standard is “the historic common currency of civilization” and the “proven guarantor of one hundred years of price stability,” the history of gold is far more nuanced. Silver actually was the dominant metallic standard for hundreds of years before gold. The main reason it was displaced by gold is not that gold was inherently better, but that important countries, including the U.K. and the U.S., introduced bimetallism—legally minting silver and gold into money—and did so at exchange rates that inadvertently led to the undervaluation of silver. This undervaluation eventually drove silver out of circulation as money. Gold became the money standard largely by accident.

In the U.S., bimetallism was introduced in 1792. Soon afterward, changing market prices led to an overvaluation of silver at the mint and a de facto silver standard that lasted until 1834. Congress then changed the mint ratio and, in an instant, gold became overvalued, and would serve as the monetary standard from 1834 to 1861. This change was part of President Andrew Jackson’s famous war on the Second Bank of the United States, whose bills were backed by silver. There was nothing market-driven or natural about this switch from a silver standard to a gold standard. It was pure politics.

That gold was an accident of history is further evident in the contentious debate over a gold standard versus a bimetallic standard after the Civil War. Convertibility of dollars into metals had ended with the Civil War, and Congress had set 1879 as the year it would resume. Congress, however, failed to authorize the further coinage of silver. This meant that dollars would be convertible only into gold. Had silver still been coined at the mint, it would have become, by 1879, the de facto money standard, given market prices. This shift to gold irritated many, particularly those who thought gold was too deflationary; this was such a concern that it became the defining issue of the 1896 presidential election. Only with the Gold Standard Act of 1900 was the possibility of monetizing silver permanently put to rest. If gold was the “currency of civilization” for centuries, as Lehrman claims, why was its success an accident, and why has the U.S. money standard always been so contentious?

Lehrman also claims that politicians cannot manipulate a gold standard as they can fiat currency, because the gold supply depends on real-world gold production. But the above examples and others (such as the suspension of convertibility during the Civil War and FDR’s confiscation of gold in 1933) clearly show that even the gold standard is susceptible to manipulation.

That the U.S. gold standard was an accident of history and that its longest unchallenged, continuous run was only a quarter of a century suggests the question: Was it was the gold standard, per se, that created the long-run price stability of the 18th and 19th centuries, or was it a deeper political and institutional commitment to price stability?
I go on to make the case that it is not price stability per se we want, but monetary stability. I argue that is best accomplished by stabilizing the expected path of total dollar spending growth. You can read the rest of my review here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Could the Fed Have Done Differently in 2008?

In my last post I showed that the second half of 2008 was when an ordinary recession got turned into the Great Recession. Starting about July, 2008 market sentiment began to significantly deteriorate as the economic outlook got markedly worse. Consequently, total dollar spending starts falling in July in anticipation of this economic weakening. Through two FOMC meetings the Fed did nothing and watched this development turn into a full-blown panic by mid-September. I noted that the Fed allowed this deterioration in expectations to occur by doing nothing. This failure to act, in turn, spawned the worse phase of the financial panic and the emergence of the Great Recession. By doing nothing, the Fed was doing something: passively tightening monetary policy at the worse time possible.

A number of observers have questioned me as to what the Fed could have done differently during this time. What difference would cutting the federal funds rate have made? 

As noted in my last post, the key was to change the expected path of monetary policy. That means far more than just changing the federal funds rate. It means committing to keeping the federal funds rate target low for a considerable time like the Fed did in 2003 and signalling this change clearly and loudly. With this approach, the Fed would have provided a check against the market pessimism that developed at this time. Instead, the Fed did the opposite: it signaled it was worried about inflation and that the expected policy path could tighten. So the correct response was about far more than just cutting the federal funds rate, it was about setting the proper expectations of the future path of policy and to stem the deteriorating economic outlook. 

Recall that Gary Gorton provides evidence that many of the CDOs and MBS were not subprime, but when the market panicked a liquidity crisis became a solvency crisis. This is especially true in late 2008. Had the Fed responded to the falling market sentiment in the second half of 2008 the financial panic in late 2008 may have never happened and the resulting bankruptcies been fewer. Again, the worst part of the financial crisis took place after this period of passive Fed tightening. This is very similar to the Great Depression when the Fed allowed the aggregate demand to collapse first and then the banking system followed. Unlike the Great Depression, though, the Fed did eventually get aggressive with its QE programs so outcome was better. 

So yes, the Fed could have done a lot during this time. Because it did not act it spawned the Great Recession.