The FOMC's Prudent Caution

Imagine Fed Governor Rip van Winkle waking from a 10-year nap to find that trend inflation is only a bit shy of the 2% target, the unemployment rate is close to its long-run steady state, and the Fed’s balance sheet is five times larger than when he fell asleep. As we wrote two years ago, you could forgive him for expecting the federal funds rate to be closer to 4% than ½%. And, you would understand his astonishment when he learns that financial market expectations of policy tightening have collapsed amid continued economic expansion.

So, why are both the current policy rate and expectations of the future rate so low? There are four powerful reasons. First, both investors and policymakers have lowered their estimates of the steady-state (or “natural”) real interest rate. That means that Fed policy today is less accommodative than Governor Rip’s 10-year-old perspective leads him to think. Second, Rip is surely startled to learn that, even with a tightening labor market and policy rates close to zero, market-based long-run inflation expectations have declined. Third, it seems unlikely that Rip would be thinking much about the policy asymmetry that occurs when the nominal interest rate is near the effective lower bound. That is, as post-crisis experience suggests, with policy rates near (or even below) zero, it is much easier for central banks to tighten when prices rise too quickly than it is to ease should prices start to fall. Fourth, the economy’s productive capacity may be endogenous: that is, it may be possible for trend growth to be higher than recent experience suggests...

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How much is our distant future worth?

In the first Superman movie, released in 1978, Lex Luthor, the supervillain played by Gene Hackman, buys up large swaths of real estate in the deserts of eastern California and Nevada. His plan is to hijack a nuclear missile and use it to cleave off coastal California into the Pacific Ocean, leaving him with newly valuable beach-front property. Well, maybe all Lex really needed was patience, not a nuclear device...

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Inflation Expectations: How Credibility Pays Off

Monetary policymakers always worry about inflation expectations. They can’t directly observe what households and business anticipate for the future path of prices, so they construct estimates from market prices and surveys. Why do they care so much? The reason is simple: keeping inflation expectations low and stable is the first step to keeping inflation low and stable. It also makes the economy more resilient in the face of adverse shocks...

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