Inflation targeting

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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Inflation risks and inflation expectations

U.S. inflation has been low and steady for three decades. This welcome stability is not merely a consequence of good fortune. Shocks that in the past might led to higher trend inflation—like the energy price increases—continue to buffet the economy much as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation rose to a peacetime record. Rather, it reflects the improved monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, which began acting as an inflation-targeting central bank in the mid-1980s, long before it announced a 2% target for inflation in 2012. As a consequence of the Fed’s sustained efforts, long-run inflation expectations have remained close to 2% for more than 20 years. One result is that temporary disturbances that drive inflation above or below target quickly fade.

This is the optimistic conclusion of the 2017 U.S. Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) report. Since the adoption of the de facto inflation-targeting regime, one-off shocks have little impact on the inflation trend. Moreover, as many have observed, the relationship between unemployment and inflation—the Phillips curve (see our primer)—is now notably weaker. However, the authors of that earlier report warn that the Phillips curve “flattening” could be a direct consequence of the Fed’s success. Furthermore, since the sample period from 1984 to 2016 excludes any sustained period of a very tight economywide labor market, it would not be possible to detect an outsized impact, if any, of persistently low unemployment on inflation.

Enter the 2019 USMPF report, which focuses on the possibility that inflation may indeed respond differently when the unemployment rate is very low and projected to remain low for several years (see, for example the FOMC’s latest Summary of Economic Projections). The logic is straightforward: if labor is very scarce for an extended period, employers will bid up wages and (unless they are prepared to accept declining profits) pass on those cost increases in the form of higher prices….

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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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GDP at Risk

For several decades, central bankers have been the key risk managers for the economy and the financial system. However, they failed spectacularly to anticipate and prevent the financial crisis of 2007-2009. The financial regulatory reforms since the crisis—capital and liquidity requirements, resolution regimes, restructuring of derivatives markets, and an evolving approach to systemic risk assessment and (macroprudential) regulation—have all been directed at improving the resilience of the system to help sustain strong and stable economic growth. As a result, the likelihood of another crisis-induced plunge in GDP is much lower today than it was a decade ago.

But we still have plenty of work to do. We are at an early stage in the process of building a financial stability policy framework that corresponds to the inflation-targeting framework which forms the basis for monetary policy. Such a framework requires measurable financial stability objectives that are akin to a price index, tools comparable to an interest rate, and dynamic models that help us to understand the link between the two.

In this post, we describe a step forward in developing such a framework: the concept and measurement of GDP at risk....

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The case for a higher inflation target gets stronger

For several years, economists and policymakers have been debating the wisdom of raising the inflation target. Today, roughly two-thirds of global GDP is produced in countries that are either de jure or de facto inflation targeters (see our earlier post). In most advanced economies, the target is (close to) 2 percent. Is 2 percent enough?

Advocates of raising the target believe that central banks need greater headroom to use conventional interest rate policy in battling business cycle downturns. More specifically, the case for a higher target is based on a desire to reduce the frequency and duration of zero-policy-rate episodes, avoiding the now well-known problems with unconventional policies (including balance sheet expansions that may prove difficult to reverse) and the limited scope for reducing policy rates below zero.

We have been reticent to endorse a higher inflation target. In our view, the most important counterargument is the enormous investment that central banks have made in making the 2-percent inflation target credible. Yet, several lines of empirical research recently have combined to boost the case for raising the target….

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Bank of Japan at the Policy Frontier

Since Governor Haruhiko Kuroda took office in March 2013, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has been the most aggressively expansionary advanced-economy central bank. Its announcement last month of a “new framework for strengthening monetary easing”—coming only six months after introducing negative policy rates—distances it even further from the pack.

That a central bank is willing to assess its performance transparently and to consider new approaches to achieving its key goals is something we have come to expect. While it’s much too early to tell whether the latest BoJ innovations will be more successful, there is reason to be skeptical. No less important, the new approach involves risks to the central bank and to financial market stability that may not be fully appreciated. Given the difficulties that other advanced-economy central banks seem to be having in raising inflation and inflation expectations, how the BoJ fares is of interest far beyond Japan.

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Policy and Measurement

Policy, especially monetary policy, is about numbers. Is inflation close to target? How fast is the economy growing? What fraction of the workforce is employed?  And, what is the relationship between the policymakers’ tools and their objectives? Answering all of these questions requires measuring a broad array of economic indicators, with consumer prices high on the list. In this post, we discuss some of the pitfalls in measuring prices.

Price indices of the sort that we use today have been around since the late 19th century. In the United States, near the end of World War I, the National Industrial Conference Board starting constructing and publishing a cost-of-living index. This work was eventually taken over by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Over the past century, the theory of price indexes (see, for example, here and here) and the means of measurement have both moved forward substantially.

With the advent of inflation targeting, price indices have taken on a new prominence. If monetary policymakers are going to focus on controlling inflation—setting numerical targets for which they are then held accountable—then the construction of the price index itself becomes an issue. What is included and how can become critical to the way policy is conducted and to the achievement of the stated objective, namely price stability....

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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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Is International Diversification Dead?

At least since Harry Markowitz’s work in the 1950s, diversification has been viewed as the key to an efficient portfolio that minimizes risk for a given expected rate of return. When James Tobin received his Nobel Prize in 1981 – in part for his work on the subject – he summarized portfolio selection theory in the classic fashion: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Over the years, academicians and market professionals extended this fundamental principle to the global asset universe, highlighting the benefits of going beyond simply holding a broad group of domestic instruments to the idea of international diversification. In the case of equity portfolios, they also observed that people typically hold a smaller share of foreign stocks than simple portfolio selection models prescribe. This gap between actual and model-based optimal allocations of equity portfolios has become known in finance as the equity home bias puzzle.

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The FOMC is coming

Having dropped to 5.1%, the unemployment rate has reached the longer-run employment goal of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC). So, starting to raise interest rates would seem to be in the cards. And, many observers expect policymakers to act soon, possibly very soon.

The key sticking point, and it is a big one, is that inflation – as measured by the personal consumption expenditure price index (PCE) favored by the FOMC – has been consistently below their stated 2% medium-term objective since early 2012.

Tightening monetary policy for the first time since 2006 requires confidence that inflation will in fact head back up (see, for example, the July FOMC statement and Fed Vice Chair Fischer’s recent comments). The difficulty is that confidence requires reliable forecasts. And, as it turns out, precise forecasts of inflation are hard to come by....

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Is 2% still the solution?

The debate over the appropriate level for a central bank’s inflation objective reminds us of a 40-year-old Sherlock Holmes movie called “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.” Convinced that Holmes’ addiction to cocaine (the solution in the title) had made him delusional, Watson took the master sleuth to Vienna to be treated by Sigmund Freud.

Has the 2% solution for inflation targeting in advanced economies made central bankers similarly delusional? Are they stubbornly attached to an outdated target? That argument gained ground in recent years as policymakers in Europe, Japan, and the United States struggled to stimulate weak economies and stabilize prices with policy interest rates stuck at the zero bound...

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Measuring inflation: Signal extraction redux

Not long ago, we posted a commentary discussing the difficulty of interpreting GDP data. The problem is one of extracting the true signal of economic growth from the noisy way that we measure output.

This signal extraction problem is generic in economics (and other sciences that use statistics). Indeed, one of us began his professional career trying to discern the trend of U.S. inflation. It was 1980 and the inflation numbers were hitting a peak of nearly 20%. The standard operating procedure at the time was to take things like food, energy and some housing-related items out of the index and recalculate them. But that meant removing only the components that had gone up more than average! How could you justify that?

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Monetary policy target regimes: inflation, price level, nominal GDP, etc.

Should central banks target inflation, the price level or nominal GDP? The question of the appropriate policy target has been a subject of analysis at least since the 1980s and has become a matter of intense debate (see here and here) for the past several years. Many proponents of price-level or nominal GDP targeting share the idea that – by credibly committing to make up the shortfalls in the price level or in nominal GDP relative to the pre-crisis trend – policymakers could drive down the current real interest rate and accelerate the economic recovery.

Looking at where we are today, what would this mean?
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