Central bank independence

Qualifying for the Fed

Monetary economists of nearly all persuasions are overwhelming in their condemnation of President Trump’s desire to appoint Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to vacant seats on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The full-throated case for a high-quality Board offered by Greg Mankiw—former Chief of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush—is just one compelling example.

Rather than review President Trump’s picks, in this post we enumerate the key qualities that we believe make a person well suited to serve on the Board. Before getting to any details, we should emphasize our strongly held view that there is no simple prescription—in law or practice―for what makes a successful Federal Reserve Governor. Furthermore, no single person combines all the characteristics needed to make for a successful Board. For that, diversity in thought, preferences, frameworks, decision-making, and experience is essential.

With the benefits of diversity in mind, we highlight three common characteristics that we consider vital for anyone to be an effective Governor (or Reserve Bank President). These are: a deep respect for the Fed’s legal mandate; a clear understanding of an analytic framework that makes policy choices reasonably predictable and effective; and an open-mindedness combined with humility that tempers the application of that framework….

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Bad Precedent

Recent reports that President Trump wanted to fire Board Chairman Powell in response to Federal Reserve interest rate hikes are unprecedented. Denials from senior officials―Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Hassett―have even less credibility than would a statement (or tweet) from the President himself. We find this entire discussion extremely disheartening and surely damaging to economic policy and the credibility of the Federal Reserve. As former Chair Yellen has stated, the risk is that people lose “confidence in the Fed, in the basis for its actions and its responsiveness to its mandate” (see here, time mark: 18:51).

To be sure, there is some debate over whether the President can fire the Fed Chair, other than “for cause.” We are not lawyers, but thoughtful people such as Peter Conti-Brown suggest that the answer is yes. Against this background, we view President Trump’s actions (and reported wishes) as the most serious threat to Fed independence since the Treasury-Fed accord of March 1951….

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What Should the Fed Own?

The Federal Reserve began to consider just how far its balance sheet consolidation should go well before the tapering actually began nearly a year ago. Earlier staff analyses pointed to a gradual runoff of long-term debt that could take years to reduce Fed assets to a new long-run equilibrium. More recently, market observers have speculated about an early end to consolidation that would result in a higher steady-state level.

Yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights, policymakers and analysts have devoted less attention to the mix of assets that the Fed should select once the balance sheet shrinks to its long-run equilibrium and policymakers allow it to expand slowly—say, in line with the increase of demand for currency.

In this post, we argue that the Fed should aim in normal times—when the economy is expanding and absent any financial strains—for a portfolio that has minimal liquidity, maturity and credit risk. In practical terms, this means that their portfolio should be composed largely of Treasury bills and short-term notes, with an average maturity that is very short….

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Trump v. Fed

Last month, interrupting decades of presidential self-restraint, President Trump openly criticized the Federal Reserve. Given the President’s penchant for dismissing valuable institutions, it is hard to be surprised. Perhaps more surprising is the high quality of his appointments to the Board of Governors. Against that background, the limited financial market reaction to the President’s comments suggests that investors are reasonably focused on the selection of qualified academics and individuals with valuable policy and business experience, rather than a few early-morning words of reproof.

Nevertheless, the President’s comments are seriously disturbing and—were they to become routine—risk undermining the significant benefits that Federal Reserve independence brings. Importantly, the criticism occurred despite sustained strength in the economy and financial markets, and despite the stimulative monetary and fiscal policies in place….

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Making Unelected Power Legitimate

Through what administrative means should a democratic society in an advanced economy implement regulation? In practice, democratic governments opt for a variety of solutions to this challenge. Historically, these approaches earned their legitimacy by allocating power to elected officials who make the laws or directly oversee their agents.

Increasingly, however, governments have chosen to implement policy through agencies with varying degrees of independence from both the legislature and the executive. Under what circumstances does it make sense in a democracy to delegate powers to the unelected officials of independent agencies (IA) who are shielded from political influence? How should those powers be allocated to ensure both legitimacy and sustainability?

These are the critical issues that Paul Tucker addresses in his ambitious and broad-ranging book, Unelected Power. In addition to suggesting areas where delegation has gone too far, Tucker highlights others—such as the maintenance of financial resilience (FR)—where agencies may be insufficiently shielded from political influence to ensure effective governance. His analysis raises important questions about the regulatory framework in the United States.

In this post, we discuss Tucker’s principles for delegating authority to an IA. A key premise—that we share with Tucker—is that better governance can help substitute where simple policy rules are insufficient for optimal decisions….

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Relying on the Fed's Balance Sheet

Last week’s 12th annual U.S. Monetary Policy Forum focused on the effectiveness of Fed large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) as an instrument of monetary policy. Despite notable disagreements, the report and discussion reveal a broad (if not universal) consensus on key issues:

In a world of low equilibrium real interest rates and low inflation, policymakers could easily hit the zero lower bound (ZLB) in the next recession.

At the ZLB, the Fed should again use a combination of balance-sheet tools and interest-rate forward-guidance to achieve its mandated objectives of stable prices and maximum sustainable employment (see our earlier post).

Yet, significant uncertainties about the impact of balance-sheet expansion mean that LSAPs may not provide sufficient stimulus at the ZLB.

Fed policymakers should undertake a thorough (and potentially lengthy) assessment of alternative policy tools and frameworks—ranging from negative interest rates to a higher inflation target to forms of price-level targeting—to ensure they remain as effective as possible.

The remainder of this post discusses the challenges of measuring the impact of balance-sheet policies. As the now-extensive literature on the subject implies, balance-sheet expansions ease financial conditions. However, as this year’s USMPF report emphasizes, there is substantial uncertainty about the scale of that impact.... 

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Time Consistency: A Primer

The problem of time consistency is one of the most profound in social science. With applications in areas ranging from economic policy to counterterrorism, it arises whenever the effectiveness of a policy today depends on the credibility of the commitment to implement that policy in the future.

For simplicity, we will define a time consistent policy as one where a future policymaker lacks the opportunity or the incentive to renege. Conversely, a policy lacks time consistency when a future policymaker has both the means and the motivation to break the commitment.

In this post, we describe the conceptual origins of time consistency. To emphasize its broad importance, we provide three economic examples—in monetary policy, prudential regulation, and tax policy—where the impact of the idea is especially notable....

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A Monetary Policy Framework for the Next Recession

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. That could be the motto of any risk manager. In the case of a central banker, the job of ensuring low, stable inflation and high, stable growth requires constant contingency planning.

With the global economy humming along, monetary policymakers are on track to normalize policy. While that process is hardly free of risk, their bigger test will be how to address the next cyclical downturn whenever it arrives. Will policymakers have the tools needed to stabilize prices and ensure steady expansion? Because the equilibrium level of interest rates is substantially lower, the scope for conventional interest rate cuts is smaller. As a result, the challenge is bigger than it was in the past.

This post describes the problem and highlights a number of possible solutions.

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Black Monday: 30 Years After

On Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6 percent, nearly twice the next largest drop—the 12.8 percent Great Crash on October 28, 1929, that heralded the Great Depression.

What stands out is not the scale of the decline—it is far smaller than the 90 percent peak-to-trough drop of the early 1930s—but its extraordinary speed. A range of financial market and institutional dislocations accompanied this rapid plunge, threatening not just stocks and related instruments (domestically and globally), but also the U.S. supply of credit and the payments system. As a result, Black Monday has been labeled “the first contemporary global financial crisis.” And, a new book—A First-Class Catastrophe—narrates the tense human drama that it created for market and government officials. A movie seems sure to follow.

Our reading of history suggests that it was only with a great dose of serendipity that we escaped catastrophe in 1987. Knowing that fortune usually favors the well prepared, the near-collapse on Black Monday prompted market participants, regulators, the lender of last resort, and legislators to fortify the financial system.

In this post, we review key aspects of the 1987 crash and discuss subsequent steps taken to improve the resilience of the financial system. We also highlight a key lingering vulnerability: we still have no mechanism for managing the insolvency of critical payment, clearing and settlement (PCS) institutions....

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Why the central bank should be a leading supervisor

Should central banks be a leading supervisor, including supervising systemically important institutions? This is a question that members of the U.S. Congress periodically raise.  Our answer is unequivocally yes. As the lender of last resort, as the monetary policy authority, and as the organization responsible for overseeing the health and stability of the overall financial system—what we could call a systemic regulator—the central bank needs to be a leading supervisor....

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The Fed's Price Stability Achievement

Over the past decade, critics of all stripes have assailed Federal Reserve monetary policy. At one end of the spectrum, some argued that the Fed’s expansionary balance sheet policy risked currency debasement and high inflation. While some of these critics sought merely to influence ongoing policy, others called for replacing the Fed altogether, and restoring the Gold Standard. And then there were those promoting oversight over monetary policy operations that would significantly curtail central bank independence.

At the other end, a different set of critics worried about outright deflation: according to monthly averages from Google Trends, since 2004, U.S. searches for deflation were twice as frequent as those for hyperinflation. Some economists called for a higher inflation target. Squarely in the second camp, officials inside the Federal Reserve System developed deflation probability trackers like this one (here is another from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta).

These diverse perspectives form the backdrop to this year's report for the U.S Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) that we co-authored with Michael Feroli, Peter Hooper and Anil Kashyap. In that paper, we document that the trend in U.S. inflation has been remarkably low and stable since the early 1990s....


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Central Bank Independence: Growing Threats

The median FOMC participant forecasts that the Committee will raise the target range for the federal funds rate three times this year. That is, by the end of 2017, the range will be 1.25 to 1.50 percent. Assuming the FOMC follows through, this will be the first time in a decade that the policy rate has risen by 75 basis points in a year. It is natural to ask what sort of criticism the central bank will face and whether its independence will be threatened.

Our concerns arise from statements made by President-elect Trump during the campaign, as well as from legislative proposals made by various Republican members of Congress and from Fed criticism from those likely to influence the incoming Administration’s policies....

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Inflation and Fiscal Policy

Why is it proving so difficult to raise inflation? For generations after World War II, this was not something that worried economists. Yet, today, even as central banks lower policy rates close to zero (or below) and expand their balance sheets beyond what anyone previously imagined possible (see chart), inflation remains stubbornly below target in most of the advanced world.

Nowhere is this problem more profound than in Japan, where mild deflation was the norm for nearly two decades and where inflation still remains well shy of the Bank of Japan’s 2% target. Even as monetary policymakers expanded the central bank’s balance sheet by nearly one-third of GDP and nudged its policy rate slightly below zero, consumer price inflation (as measured by our preferred trend measure, the 10% trimmed mean) has slipped from 0.9% to 0.1% over the two years to July 2016...

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How the Fed tightened

Back in August, we explained the mechanics of how the Fed can tighten policy in today’s world of abundant bank reserves. Now that the first policy tightening under the new framework is behind us, we can review how the Fed did it, if there were any surprises, and what trials still lie ahead.

So far, the new process has been extraordinarily smooth – a tribute to planning by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and to years of testing by the Market Desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY). But it’s still very early in the game, so uncertainties and challenges surely remain.

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Unconventional monetary policy through the Fed's rear-view mirror

On December 16, the Federal Open Market Committee is poised to hike interest rates, putting an end to the near-zero interest rate policy that began in December 2008. So, it’s natural to step back and ask what this episode has taught us about monetary policy at the near-zero lower bound for nominal interest rates. This is not merely some academic exercise. The euro area and Japan are still constrained by the zero bound. And, in this era of low inflation and low potential growth, policy rates in advanced economies are likely to hit that lower bound again (see, for example, here). How the Fed and other central banks respond when that happens will depend on the lessons drawn from recent experience...

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A Primer on Central Bank Independence

Central bank independence is controversial. It requires the delegation of powerful authority to a group of unelected officials. In a democracy, this anomaly naturally raises questions of legitimacy. It also raises fears of the concentration of power in the hands of a select few.

An independent central bank is a device to overcome the problem of time consistency: the concern that policymakers will renege in the future on a policy promise made today ....

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Learning from Japan: It's Hard to End a Deflation

In 1974, when the Fed faced rising inflation, the U.S. government sought to “Whip Inflation Now” by encouraging people to wear “WIN” buttons. Today, the problem is reversed. Several central banks are having trouble creating inflation. Unfortunately, we doubt that “SIN” buttons – “Support Inflation Now” – will be any more effective than the earlier variety, which served mainly as fodder for late-night comedy.

As has been the case for some time, Japan is blazing the trail into the monetary and fiscal unknown. Today's Bank of Japan's (BoJ) leadership is far more determined to promote price stability than its predecessors over the past two decades. But the deflationary hole that Japan is climbing out of is so deep that the BoJ may need some help...

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Do central banks need capital?

If you ask monetary economists whether we should care if a central bank’s capital level falls below zero (even for an extended period of time), most will say no. Pose the same question to central bank governors, and the answer in nearly every case will be yes.

What accounts for this stark difference? How can something that seems not to matter in theory be so important in practice?...

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The Congressional Reserve Board: A Really Bad Idea

What would you think if you were to open your morning newspaper to find the following headline?

“Congress Closes Down Fed, Takes Over Monetary Policy”

If you’re like us, you’d panic. In short order, you’d think that long-term inflation expectations would rise, pushing bond yields higher. You’d anticipate an increase in the volatility of growth, employment and inflation. That more volatile environment would drive up the risk premium required on new investments, hindering long-term economic growth. Finally, you'd be very worried about how these Congressional policymakers would manage the next financial crisis.

This is not a pretty picture. Why would anyone want it to become a reality? Well, these are surely not the intended goals, but they are the likely outcomes should lawmakers ever replace the Federal Reserve Board with what we would call a Congressional Reserve Board...

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