Policy inertia

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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Living with uncertainty: What central banks do when they don't know the natural rate

“Unfortunately, we have as yet devised no method to estimate accurately and readily the natural rate of either interest or unemployment. And the ‘natural’ rate itself will change from time to time.” Milton Friedman, American Economic Association Presidential Address, 1968.

What do you do if, on a dark and foggy night, you are forced to drive on a road with a sheer cliff on one side? Unless you know precisely where the road ends and the cliff begins, you will likely go slowly and keep your foot near the brakes. Driving like a tortoise is not the “first best” solution  – fog lights that distinguish the road from the cliff would be better. But, absent proper illumination, going slowly is a safe response to perilous driving conditions. It helps prevent catastrophic, irreversible errors.

Such robust strategies are key to central bankers' success as well...

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