That well describes the challenges faced by monetary policymakers according to this piece from Bloomberg Business “Are we tight yet? The Fed´s problem in finding the neutral rate”:
Federal Reserve officials just aren’t sure how much stimulus their zero-interest-rate policy is providing.
At issue is the level of the so-called natural, neutral or equilibrium rate of interest, which is the borrowing cost — adjusted for inflation — that keeps the economy at full employment with stable prices.
Economists from the academic world and even within the central bank are vigorously airing differing views on where the rate lies in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The uncertainty is yet another reason for Fed officials to go slowly as they begin raising interest rates for the first time since 2006.
According to this older piece from Brueguel:
What’s at stake: The natural rate of interest is a key ingredient in the recent discussion of secular stagnation, and more generally in New-Keynesian models of the Great Recession. But the concept is often poorly understood, in part because the term refers to different things for different people.
A couple of examples:
Richard Anderson writes that the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell based his theory on a comparison of the marginal product of capital with the cost of borrowing money. If the money rate of interest was below the natural rate of return on capital, entrepreneurs would borrow at the money rate to purchase capital (equipment and buildings), thereby increasing demand for all types of resources and their prices; the converse would be true if the money rate was greater than the natural rate of return on capital.
Axel Leijonhufvud writes that Erik Lindahl (1939) and Gunnar Myrdal (1939) refined the conceptual apparatus, in particular by introducing the distinction between ex ante plans and ex post realizations and thereby clarifying the relationship between Wicksellian theory and national income analysis.
And there are several others.
In short, the Fed is faced with an “estimation” problem. To make that clear, think of a Taylor-Rule for setting the Fed Fund (FF) rate:
The circles around the level of “potential output” (y*) and the level of the natural rate (NR) represent the “uncertainty” about their estimated values.
For example, San Francisco Fed senior economist Vasco Cúrdia argued in a paper published earlier this month that the equilibrium rate may have dropped so much that “monetary conditions remain relatively tight despite the near-zero federal funds rate.” He provides a chart which indicates that at present the “natural rate” could be anywhere from -3% to 6%!
Similar uncertainty surrounds the value of “potential” output.
In essence, facing the “estimation” problem, the situation of monetary policy makers is well captured by this picture!
An alternative, to try to overcome the “estimation” problem would be for the Fed to try some “experimentation”.
That has happened before. In March 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt decided to “innovate” and free the economy from the “gold standard shackles”, delinking from gold. The effect was immediate as illustrated below.
More recently, in the heights of the Great Inflation, Paul Volcker also decided to innovate:
On Oct. 6, 1979, the Federal Open Market Committee—under the leadership of Paul Volcker—made a decision that would come to be known as a key moment in U.S. economic policymaking, a turning point in the history of the Federal Reserve that would forever alter central banking. And those are the understatements.
A defining moment may shape the direction of an institution for decades to come. In the modern history of the Federal Reserve, the action it took on October 6, 1979, stands out as such a milestone and arguably as a turning point in our nation’s economic history.(A Greenspan)
So, what did the FOMC do? It made a short-term change in the method used to conduct monetary policy, from making adjustments in the federal funds rate to containing growth in the monetary aggregates. (Yes, the Fed now targets the funds rate again—the 1979 change was reversed in 1982—but more on that in a minute.) This meant the Fed would focus on controlling the amount of reserves provided to the banking system, which would ultimately limit the supply of money.
By many, that “experiment” was seen as a failure. Nevertheless, judging by the results it worked, in that inflation was permanently brought down.
In what follows I´ll give a “liberal” interpretation of the experimentation, based on NGDP. The interpretation is not so farfetched because the NGDP targeting concept was extensively discussed both by the Volcker Fed in 1982 and by the Greenspan Fed in 1992.
The first charts show how rising core inflation was the outcome of a rising NGDP growth. The follow up shows that by “downsizing” NGDP growth inflation was brought down.
This was followed by Greenspan´s “consolidation” in 1987-92 and almost “smooth sailing” from then to the end of his mandate in January 2006. These last two periods came to be known as the “Great Moderation”.
I interpret the “experiment” as trying to find first the level and then the stable growth path for NGDP. As the next chart shows, by 1987 the Fed had “hit” on the NGDP level and from then onwards NGDP growth rate was stabilized, i.e. kept close to the trend path.
There were “mistakes” along the way, notably in 1998-03, when NGDP first rose above trend and then fell below, but by the end of 2005, NGDP was back on trend.
Soon after taking the Fed´s helm, Bernanke allowed NGDP to begin once more to fall below trend. This was magnified in 2008, probably because of the Fed´s exclusive focus on headline inflation, which was being propelled by an oil and commodity price shock. In an environment where the financial system was “wounded”, allowing NGDP to crumble is mortal!
At present we have the opposite situation of the 1970s. Instead of high/rising inflation due to rising NGDP growth, we have low/falling inflation due to low/falling NGDP growth. So this time around it may be fruitful to devise an NGDP based experiment in reverse. Try to establish a higher level of NGDP that when attained is “consolidated” through a stable NGDP growth rate.
This “experimentation” would be much more helpful than spending time on “estimation” of the “natural rate of interest” or the “potential level of output”.
PS In the comments, bill writes:
“I need to go see the correlation between corporate spreads and NGDP growth. I think those spreads have been widening which I take as a good sign that the market expects less than optimal choices by the Fed in the near future.”
The chart shows how the recent fall in NGDP growth has been accompanied by a rise in less than stellar bond spreads over 10yr treasuries: