Taylor rule

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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Dot-ology: What can we learn from the dot plot?

The primary objective of monetary policy is to keep inflation and unemployment low and stable. To be effective, central bankers must address shocks to inflation and unemployment, while ensuring that what they say and do is not a source of volatility. One way to make a commitment to stability credible is for policymakers to broadcast their likely responses to shocks—their reaction function. Such transparency escalates the cost of reneging, helping to anchor expectations about the future that influence current behavior (see our primer on time consistency). And, because they can anticipate how policy will respond to changes in economic and financial conditions, it improves everyone’s economic and financial decisions.

With such a stability-oriented policy strategy, the policy path will depend on what happens in a changing world. Only under specific circumstances―such as when the short-term interest rate is at or near its effective lower bound―will policymakers be inclined to commit to a specific future policy path.

Recently, we wrote about the remarkable evolution of Federal Reserve monetary policy communication over the past quarter century. Today, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) publishes statements, minutes, and quarterly forecasts for growth, inflation, unemployment, and interest rates. In this post we take up a narrow question: What can we learn from the information published in the FOMC’s quarterly Summary of Economic Projections (SEP)?

Our answer is: quite a bit. The data allow us to estimate not only an FOMC reaction function, but also a short-run projection of the equilibrium real rate of interest (r*)―one that is consistent with projected economic conditions over a two- to three-year horizon—in addition to the long-run r* that is implicit in each SEP. While there is almost surely room to improve on the SEP, we conclude, as a friend and expert Fed watcher once suggested, “Don’t ditch the dots” ….

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Navigating in Cloudy Skies

Stargazers hate clouds. Even modest levels of humidity and wind make it hard to “see” the wonders of the night sky. Very few places on our planet have consistently clear, dark skies.

Central bankers face a similar, albeit earthly, challenge. Even the simplest economic models require estimation of unobservable factors; something that generates considerable uncertainty. As Vice Chairman Clarida recently explained, the Fed depends on new data not only to assess the current state of the U.S. economy, but also to pin down the factors that drive a wide range of models that guide policymakers’ decisions.

In this post, we highlight how the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC’s) views of two of those “starry” guides—the natural rates of interest (r*) and unemployment (u*)—have evolved in recent years. Like sailors under a cloudy sky, central bankers may need to shift course when the clouds part, revealing that they incorrectly estimated these economic stars. The uncertainty resulting from unavoidable imprecision not only affects policy setting, but also complicates policymakers’ communication, which is one of the keys to making policy effective….

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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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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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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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Policy rules

Monetary economists like rules. Traditionally, they worry that policymakers will sacrifice the long-term benefits of price stability for the more immediate gratification of higher growth. Realizing how hard it is to resist temptation, politicians have delegated monetary policy to a central bank that is independent, but subject to a mandate that constrains their discretion. This institutional setup helped lower inflation in the advanced economies from a median exceeding 10 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s to about 2 percent by the late 1990s.

But, convinced that overly accommodative financial conditions in the first few years of the century spurred the credit accumulation that fed the 2007-09 financial crisis, there is a push to constrain central banks further by requiring that they publish and account for their actions with reference to a simple policy rule...

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Connect the Dots

How and what should the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) communicate to make monetary policy most effective? That is the question addressed by this year’s U.S. Monetary Policy Forum report (Language After Liftoff: Fed Communication Away from the Zero Lower Bound).

Over the past two decades, the FOMC has made enormous strides in promoting transparency. In sharp contrast to most of its previous history, the Fed now emphasizes that transparency enhances the effectiveness of monetary policy.

Yet, central bank communication is a work in progress. And, as the new USMPF report argues, there remains scope for improvement. In our view, the simplest and most useful change that the authors recommend, and that the Fed could implement—immediately and without cost—is to “connect the dots:” that is, to link (while maintaining anonymity) the published interest rate forecasts of each FOMC participant that appear in the quarterly “dot plot” (found in the Summary of Economic Projections, or SEP) to that same person’s projections of inflation, unemployment, and economic growth.

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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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Your Friend FRED

“Captain, we’re here. Why not avail ourselves of this opportunity for study? … No other vessel has been out this far.” Lt. Commander Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Where No One Has Gone Before” (1987)

If you are a student of economics – or an inquisitive android like Lt. Commander Data of Star Trek: TNG fame – then you have a great friend to help you understand the world: FRED.  The Federal Reserve Economic Database (FRED for short) is provided free of charge to the public by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. FRED currently includes more than 238,000 time series from nearly 80 sources covering about 200 countries, and it continues to grow...

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Is the Fed Behind the Curve?

Imagine Fed Governor Rip van Winkle started his nap at the beginning of 2007 and just woke up to find that inflation is close to the Fed’s objective and the unemployment rate is at its 30-year average. You could forgive him for expecting the federal funds rate to be close to its long-run norm of about 4%, and for his surprise upon learning that the funds rate is at 0.1% and Fed assets are five times where they were when his snooze began.

Is the Fed already behind the curve? Why do policymakers emphasize their expectation that rates will stay low “for a considerable time” beyond October (when asset purchases are expected to halt)? What risks are they seeking to balance?

 

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