Fed Chest-Thumping for Beginners

I generally avoid writing about monetary policy, since every economics course I’ve taken since college has been a micro course, and besides Simon is a macroeconomist, among other things. But since just about everyone in my RSS feed has been linking to Tim Duy’s recent article on the Fed, I thought I would try to put in context for all of us who don’t understand Fed-speak.

Duy takes as his starting point a series of statements by Fed governors and bank presidents indicating “hawkishness,” which in central banker jargon means caring primarily about inflation, not economic growth. (”Doves” are those who care more about economic growth and jobs, although, just like in the national security context, no one likes to be known as a dove. This itself is a disturbing use of language, since it implicitly justifies beating up on poor people, but let’s leave that for another day.)

Hawks also like to talk a lot about “credibility,” which means a reputation for being willing to fight inflation. People use the word credibility in this context because the conventional wisdom used to be that national governments would not be willing to take tough steps (raising interest rates) against inflation because that would cost jobs, and hence votes in the next election. So central banks had to prove that they were willing to raise interest rates and put people out of work, even though that might be politically unpopular. Now that our Fed governors and bank presidents are accountable to just about no one, beating on their chests and proclaiming how willing they are to be tough in the face of the political winds rings a little hollow to me — especially in a “middle-class” country that considers inflation to be a greater evil than unemployment. Arguably, the situation has reversed; it has become so accepted that the primary job of a central bank is to fight inflation, despite the Fed’s dual mandate (to both fight inflation and promote stable economic growth), that fighting inflation has become the politically safe thing to do. But I digress again.

This is what Duy sees:

  • Kevin Warsh of the board of governors: “If ‘whatever it takes’ was appropriate to arrest the panic, the refrain might turn out to be equally necessary at a stage during the recovery to ensure the Fed’s institutional credibility.”
  • Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker, from Bloomberg: “The Federal Reserve will need to raise interest rates when the economic recovery is ‘firmly’ in place, even if unemployment lingers near 10 percent, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker said.”
  • Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser: “[J]ust as the Fed has taken aggressive steps in flooding the financial markets with liquidity during this crisis to reduce the possibility of a second Great Depression, it will also have to take the necessary steps to prevent a second Great Inflation. Our credibility depends on it. …  The Fed will need courage because I believe we will need to act well before unemployment rates and other measures of resource utilization have returned to acceptable levels.”

Can you feel the testosterone?

Duy argues that all this manliness is misplaced. The Fed hawks’ basic argument seems to be that, because it acted so aggressively to stimulate the economy last year, it will have to act equally aggressively to dampen growth at some point — just to send a message. And to send that message, they need to be willing to raise interest rates while unemployment is still 10% (Lacker) or “well before unemployment rates and other measures of resource utilization have returned to acceptable levels” (Plosser).

Now, there may be something to this. Duy points out that the hawks seem to be worried about recreating the debt bubble of the last decade through too much cheap money. If cheap money is going to flow straight into overvalued houses, then that’s a problem. But Duy says that that is a failure of regulation. Low rates are supposed to stimulate capital investment by businesses, which is what long-term economic growth depends on. But earlier this decade, despite low rates, capital investment never returned to 1990s levels, because all the cheap money was flowing into housing instead — for reasons we know.

“Are we really worried about a lending explosion by itself, or that the regulatory environment remains so weak that financial institutions will quickly repeat the experience of this decade’s debt bubble? …

“With the primary build out of the internet backbone complete, the US appeared to experience a dearth of traditional investment opportunities (I suspect that the need to expand production domestically was made moot by an international financial arrangement that favored the establishment of productive capacity overseas), and, like water flowing downhill, capital was thus allocated this decade to residential investment, which, we now know was more about consumption than investment, and the resulting economic activity was anemic by historical standards.”

The solution, then, is better regulation to protect against misallocation of credit to the next asset bubble. Simply raising rates will choke off an asset bubble, but it will also choke off real investment by businesses.

This goes back to what StatsGuy said in a post here:

“In order for the Fed to actually be able to fully use monetary policy to keep the economy humming at full throttle, we need financial regulation (to avoid new liquidity being channeled into bubbles instead of real investment), better capital asset ratios (to help moderate moral hazard and asymmetric risk), and limited expectations of future dollar devaluation (which currently result from our huge debts, and China’s continued mercantilist policies that keep the dollar propped up). …

“But what happens if we fail to fix the structural issues? Well, the answer is not good. Without the right scalpels and scaffolding, the Fed will use a sledgehammer – taking away the punchbowl during booms and giving it back during busts. Except that it will almost always get the timing wrong – taking away the punchbowl too fast and give it back too late, due to poor regulation and dollar instability, and its own anti-inflation intellectual bias and obsession with its credibility.”

In other words, if you’re going to throw in the towel on regulation, then there is no place for cheap money to go except the next asset bubble. You might as well try to prevent that, but then you are consigning the real economy to a long, slow decline since you have no way of getting monetary stimulus where you need it (factories, not new condo towers).

So there seem to be two possible futures. If we repeat the Greenspan policy of low rates during a boom, we’ll just create a bubble all over again, since none of the underlying factors (weak consumer protection, weak bank regulation, etc.) have changed. Or if the hawks win (both in the Fed and in Congress, which controls fiscal stimulus), we’ll have high unemployment for a long, long time, since no one will have the guts to risk higher inflation. Being a “hawk” has become the safe, comfortable choice — even in a week when monthly job losses were up and weekly new unemployment claims were up.

Originally published at The Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.