ZLB

Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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Banks and Money, Or Watch out What You Wish For

On 10 June 2008, a large majority of voters in Switzerland rejected a proposal that all commercial bank demand deposits be held at the central bank. This Vollgeld referendum was another incarnation of the justifiable public revulsion to financial crises and the bailouts that inevitably accompany them. Vollgeld proponents claimed that a system in which the central bank is the sole issuer of “money” will be more stable.

Serious people debated the wisdom of this proposal. One of Switzerland’s premier monetary economists, Philippe Bacchetta, wrote passionately in opposition. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, argued in favor. And Swiss National Bank Chairman Thomas Jordan discussed the many dangers in detail.

It should come as no surprise that, had we had been among the Swiss voters, we would have voted “no.” In our view, the Vollgeld (sovereign money) initiative combined aspects of narrow banking with those of retail central bank digital currency. We see these as misguided, distorting the credit allocation mechanism and more likely to reduce than improve financial stability (see here and here). In the remainder of this post, we explain why….

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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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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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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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How Low Can They Go?

Not long ago, nearly everyone thought that nominal interest rates could not go below zero. Now, we have negative policy rates in the euro area and Japan, while in Sweden and Switzerland, the lowest controlled rate is below -1%. And government securities worth trillions of dollars bear negative rates, too.

When we first wrote about negative rates a year ago, we argued that the effective lower bound (ELB, rather than ZLB) for nominal rates was determined by the transactions costs of storing and transferring cash. We reasoned that the ELB might be in the range of -0.50% (minus one-half percent). Below that, we thought, there would be a move into cash, facilitated by banks and others who efficiently manage the notes for clients.

But, at the negative rates that we have seen so far, cash in circulation has not spiked. So, how much further can nominal interest rates fall? And what role should negative interest rates play in the future?

 

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Falling Interest Rates and Government Investment

Switzerland is an amazing place, not least the skiing, the chocolate, and the punctual trains. The latter is part of the country’s exquisitely maintained infrastructure: there are no potholes, and no deferred maintenance of train tracks, tunnels, airports, or public buildings. Few countries go so far, but many can take a lesson: it pays to maintain infrastructure at least so that it doesn’t fail.

We bring this up now because financial markets are telling us that it’s a very good time to build and repair infrastructure: real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates have fallen so low that it has become exceptionally cheap to finance the improvement and repair of neglected roads, bridges, transport hubs, and public utilities. Yet, in the United States, we are doing less public investment than ever: net government investment has fallen to what is probably a record low...

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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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The ECB's Not-So-Sweet 16th

Sixteenth birthdays can be momentous occasions. A coming of age of sorts. Well, New Year’s Day 2015 the European Central Bank turned 16. It is a momentous birthday, but not all that sweet.

To be sure, there is notable good news. The new headquarters in Frankfurt recently opened. Lithuania has entered the euro area. The frequency of ECB monetary policy meetings is about to decline. And there will soon be timely publication of minutes of these meetings.

But the risk of deflation amid sustained economic weakness makes for a very anxious birthday...

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Should we really worry about currency wars?

In September 2010, Brazil’s former finance minister, Guido Mantega, made headlines when he accused the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England of engaging in a currency war.  The complaint was that easy monetary policy was driving down the value of the dollar, the euro and the pound, at the expense of his country and those like it. More recently, similar charges have been levied against Japan: namely, that the Bank of Japan’s extraordinary balance sheet expansion is aimed at driving down the value of the yen, damaging the country’s trading partners and competitors...

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How big should central bank balance sheets be?

In 2007, the Fed’s balance sheet was less than $1 trillion. Today, it is nearly $4.5 trillion. The U.S. experience is far from unique. Since 2007, global central bank balance sheets have nearly tripled to more than $22 trillion as of mid-2014. And, the increase is split evenly between advanced and emerging market economies (EMEs).

So what’s the right size? The answer depends on the policy goals and the nature of the financial system. In the case of the Fed, we expect that it will be able to achieve its long-term objectives with fewer than half of its current assets...

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The ECB plans to ease, but how?

The European Central Bank is nervous. Inflation in the euro area has fallen to 0.5 percent (see chart), well below the ECB’s objective of slightly below 2 percent. Not only that, but most of the peripheral countries (including Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia. Spain, and Portugal) are now experiencing deflation. What to do?

Last week, President Mario Draghi signaled that the ECB Governing Council is likely to ease policy at its June 5 meeting. How?...
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ECB Minute by Minute

Central bank communication is a work in progress everywhere, but particularly so in the euro area.

Unlike the Fed, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan, which all publish minutes of their policy meetings with a lag of a few weeks, current ECB rules anticipate releasing summary records of Governing Council meetings only 30 years after they occur.
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What will the Fed use as its operating target?

In 2012, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) clarified its long-run goals of price stability and maximum sustainable employment in a strategic statement that included for the first time a numerical inflation objective. While these ultimate objectives have evolved over the years, the FOMC’s operating instrument has been unchanged at least since 1981, when it began to target the federal funds rate -- the overnight interest rate on unsecured interbank loans. Since December 16, 2008, the target has been 0.00 to 0.25 percent, effectively at the zero lower bound for nominal interest rates. The history of the federal funds rate target is shown in the accompanying figure (and here). 

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What the ECB does (and what it doesn’t)

In June 2012, the balance sheet of the ECB peaked at over €3 trillion.  Since then it fell every month, so that by the end of 2013 it stood at €2.2 trillion.  Over this same period, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet rose from less than $3 trillion to more than $4 trillion.  That is, as the ECB’s balance sheet was falling by a quarter, the Fed’s rose by a third!

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