Irony alert: The Fed has been doing AIT for three decades!

As I will show, it has also been doing NGDP-LT, albeit with a “variable” Level Trend. It´s amazing that it took them one and a half years to come up with a framework that had been in place for so long!

The chart below shows that the core PCE has closely followed the trend (estimated from 1992 to 2005). The trend reflects a 1.8% average inflation, not the 2% average target, but close.

To illustrate the fact that the Fed has effectively been practicing AIT, I zoom in on two periods (outside the estimation interval) to show an instance of adjustment from above and one from below.

Even now, after the Covid19 shock, it is trying to “make-up”!

The “other Policy framework” the Fed has been “practicing” with for over three decades is NGDP Level Targeting.

The set of charts below show how NGDP has evolved along the same trend during different periods.

The following chart zooms in on 1998 – 2004 and shows that the Fed first was excessively expansionary (reacting to the Asia & Russia +LTCM crises) and then “overcorrecting” in 2001-02 before trying to put NGDP back on the level trend, which it did by 2004. Many have pointed out that the Fed was too expansionary in 2002-04, blaming it for stoking the house bubble and the subsequent financial crisis. However, the only way the Fed can “make-up” for a shortfall in the level of NGDP is for it to allow NGDP to grow above the trend rate for some time!

As the next to last chart shows, 2008 was a watershed on the Fed´s de facto NGDP-LT framework. As shown in the chart, in June 2008 the Fed “gave up” on the strategy, “deciding” it would be “healthier” for aggregate nominal spending (NGDP) to traverse to a lower level path and lower growth rate.

If you doubt that conjecture, read what Bernanke had to say when summarizing the June 2008 FOM Meeting.

Bernanke June 2008 FOMC Meeting:

“I’m also becoming concerned about the inflation side, and I think our rhetoric, our statement, and our body language at this point need to reflect that concern. We need to begin to prepare ourselves to respond through policy to the inflation risk; but we need to pick our moment, and we cannot be halfhearted.”

He certainly got what he wished for.  As the next chart indicates from the end of the Great Recession to just prior to the Covid19 shock, NGDP was spot on the new lower trend path alongside a reduced growth rate.

The Covid19 shock tanked NGDP. This was certainly different from what happened in 2008. Then, it was a monetary policy “choice”. Now, it was virus related. The other thing is that at present, instead of being worried about inflation being too high or risking getting out of control, the fear is with inflation being too low.

That worry, which has been evident for some time, led that Fed to unveil a new monetary policy framework, AIT, for average inflation targeting. As I argued before, this framework has been in place for decades!

The last chart above indicates that monetary policy is “trying” to make-up for the drop in NGDP from the “Great Recession Trend” it was on. We also saw that the Core PCE Index is on route to get back to its decades-long trend.

Given that inflation is a monetary phenomenon, these two facts are related. For inflation to go up (as required to get the price level back to the trend path) NGDP growth has to rise. However, many FOMC members are squeamish. We´ve heard some manifest that they would “be comfortable with inflation on the 2.25% – 2.5% range”.

The danger, given the presence of “squeamish” members, is there could come a time when the Fed would reduce NGDP growth before it reached the target path. Inflation would continue to rise (at a slower, “comfortable”, rate) and reach the price path while, at the same time, the economy remains stuck in an even deeper “depressive state” (that is, deeper than the one it has been since the Fed decided in 2008).

That is exactly what happened following the Great Recession. NGDP growth remained stable (at a lower rate than before) and remained “attached” to the lower level path the Fed put it on.

These facts show two things:

  1. To focus on inflation can do great damage to the economy. For example, imprisoning it in a “depressed state”.
  2. Since the Fed has kept NGDP growth stable for more than 30 years, and freely choosing the Level along which the stable growth would take place, the implication is that it has all the “technology” needed to make NGDP-LT the explicit (or just de facto) monetary policy framework. As observed, that framework is perfectly consistent with IT, AIT or PLT!

After Covid19, inflation?

Recently, manifestations about rising inflation following the Covid19 have increased substantially. Two recent examples illustrate, with both appealing to the QTM:

  1. The quantity theory of money today provides – as it always has done – a theoretical framework which relates trends in money growth to changes in inflation and nominal GDP over the medium and long term.

A condition for the return of inflation to current target levels is that the rate of money growth is reduced back towards annual rates of increase of about 6 per cent or less.

2. The quantity theory of money, the view that the money supply is the key determinant of inflation, is dead, or today’s mainstream  tell us. The Federal Reserve is now engaged in a policy that will either put the nail in the quantity theory’s coffin or restore it to the textbooks. Sadly, if the theory is alive and wins out, the economy is in for a very rough ride.

All those that appeal to the QTM to argue, “Inflation is coming”, forget that in 1971 Milton Friedman published in the JPE “A monetary theory of nominal income”, in which he argued for using the quantity theory to derive a theory of nominal income rather than a theory of either prices or real income.

There he asks; “What, on this view will cause the rate of change in nominal income to depart from its permanent level [or trend level path]? Anything that produces a discrepancy between the nominal quantity of money demanded and the quantity supplied, or between the two rates of change of money demanded and money supplied.”

A little over two decades later, in 2003, Friedman popularized that view with his “The Fed´s Thermostat” to explain the “Great Moderation”:

“In essence, the newfound stability was the result of the Fed (and many other Central Banks) stabilizing nominal expenditures. In that case, from the QTM, according to which MV=PY, the Fed managed to offset changes in V with changes in M, keeping nominal expenditures, PY, reasonably stable. Note that PY or its growth rate (p+y), contemplates both inflation and real output growth, so that stabilizing nominal expenditures along a level growth path means stabilizing both inflation and output.

How does that square with the evidence? To illustrate we look at two periods, the “Great Inflation” of the 70s and the “Great Moderation” (1987 – 2005).

During the “Great Inflation”, it seems the Thermostat broke down and the “temperature” kept rising above “normal”. During the “Great Moderation”, it appears the Thermostat worked just fine, keeping the “temperature” close to normal levels at all times.

How does the stability of the trend level path for nominal spending (NGDP) translate to the growth rate view? In the next charts, we observe that during the “Great Inflation” the “temperature” oscillated on a rising trend, while during the “Great Moderation” it was much more stable with no trend.

If the Thermostat is working fine, according to Friedman stabilizing nominal expenditures along a level growth path means stabilizing both inflation and output.

The next charts show that is the observed outcome.

On average, real growth is similar in both periods, while the volatility (standard deviation) of growth is 50% (1.3 vs 2.6) lower.

Note that price & wage controls work like putting a wet cloth on the patient´s forehead to reduce fever, as doctors did in the Middle Ages! As soon as you take away the wet cloth, temperature rises.

An interesting takeaway gleaned from the results following the application of Friedman´s Fed Thermostat, is that the 70s was no “stagflationary decade” as pop culture has it. It was just the “inflationary decade”.

It also shows that comments as the one below are plainly wrong:

“We are right to fear inflation. The 1970s was a colossal disaster and economists still can’t even agree on what exactly went wrong.”

Having understood the meaning and usefulness of “Friedman´s Thermostat”, we can use it to explain what happened after Bernanke took over as Chair in January 2006.

“Dialing down” the economy

AS the chart shows, when Bernanke began his tenure as Fed Chair, initially he kept nominal spending (NGDP) evolving close to the trend level path. Around mid-2007, he began to worry about the potential inflationary effects of low unemployment (4.4%, below their estimate of the natural rate) and rising oil prices.

At that point, money demand was on a rising trend (falling velocity) due to the uncertainties flowing from the financial sector problems that were brewing (remember the “start date” of the financial crisis was August 07 when two funds from Paribas were closed for redemption) and money supply growth was “timid”. As a result, nominal spending began to fall below trend.

In mid-08, the FOMC became very concerned about inflation. After all, in the 12 months to June 08 oil prices doubled. Bernanke´s summary of that meeting discussions is unequivocal evidence that the Fed´s goal was to “dial down” the Thermostat (or “cool”) the economy!

FOMC Meeting June 2008 (page 97):

“My bottom line is that I think the tail risks on the growth and financial side have moderated. I do think, however, that they remain significant. We cannot ignore them. I’m also becoming concerned about the inflation side, and I think our rhetoric, our statement, and our body language at this point need to reflect that concern. We need to begin to prepare ourselves to respond through policy to the inflation risk; but we need to pick our moment, and we cannot be halfhearted. When the time comes, we need to make that decision and move that way because a halfhearted approach is going to give us the worst of both worlds. It’s going to give us financial stress without any benefits on inflation. So we have a very difficult problem here, and we are going to have to work together cooperatively to achieve what we want to achieve.”

Before that meeting, the fall in nominal spending below trend was likely the result of unintended mistakes in the calibration of the thermostat, in the sense that the increase in money supply failed to fully offset the fall in velocity. During the second half of 2008, however, money supply growth decreased sharply, especially after the Fed introduced IOER in October. That certainly qualifies as “premeditated crime”!

The 2008-09 recession (dubbed “Great”) is more evidence for the relevance of the “Thermostat Framework” spelled out by Friedman. It was the conscious “dialing down” of the thermostat by the Fed, not the house price bust or the associated financial crisis, that caused the deep recession.

The charts below illustrate the impact of the “dialing down of the thermostat” by the Fed.

What comes next, however, puts the “Thermostat Analogy” in “all its glory”, in addition to dispelling the notion made popular by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that this recovery was slow because it followed a financial crisis.

In short, once the economy was “cooled”, the Fed never intended to “warm it up” to the previous trend level path, keeping the thermostat working fine for the lower temperature the Fed desired.

The implications of a well-functioning thermostat are evident in the charts below.

1 Nominal spending is kept stable along a (lower) level path

2 Both real output and inflation are stabilized (also at a lower rate)

The next chart (which makes use monthly NGDP from Macroeconomic Advisers) shows what happened following the Covid19 “attack”.

This is not like 2008. This time around, the Fed had no hand in the outcome. The virus came out of left field and “crunched” both the supply and demand “armies”, leading to a sudden “drop shock” in nominal spending.

Money demand jumped (velocity tanked). The next chart shows that the Fed reacted in the right way, with a lag, given the surprise attack.

The economy faces a health issue with mammoth economic consequences. The thermostat dialed the temperature down “automatically” and will likely maintain the “cooler temperature” while the virus is “active”. All the Fed can do is work to ensure the temperature does not fall even more. Given the latest data available (May), it appears the Fed is managing to “hold the fort”.

What the inflacionistas worry is with the aftermath, after the virus loses relevance. They argue the massive rise in the money supply observed so far ensures an inflation boom in the future.

As the thermostat analogy indicates, you have to take into account the behavior of velocity (money demand). So far, even with the “Federal Reserve pouring money into the economy at the fastest rate in the past 200 years”, what we observe is disinflation!

How will the Fed behave once the virus loses relevance? Will it set the thermostat at the previous temperature (previous trend level path)? In other words, will it make-up for the losses in nominal spending incurred during the pandemic, or not?

In this post, David Beckworth argues that there is no evidence the Fed plans to undertake a make-up policy, concluding:

“So wherever one looks, make-up policy is not being forecasted. Its absence does not bode well for the recovery and underscores the urgency of the FOMC review of its framework. I really dread repeating the slow recovery of the last decade. So please FOMC, bring this review to a vote and give make-up policy a chance during this crisis.”

After the Great Recession, the Fed chose not to “make-up”. The chart illustrates

What will it be this time around?

If the Fed undertakes a make-up policy, inflation will temporarily rise (just as it temporarily fell when the thermostat was dialed down). The impossible dream I have is that the Fed not only makes up for the virus-induced loss, but also partly for the loss incurred by its misguided policy of 2008!

As always, the inflation obsession will the greatest barrier the Fed will face. No wonder more than 40 years ago James Meade warned that inflation targeting was “dangerous”.

PS Update to the last chart above with data to August 20. The “bad outcome” seems to be transpiring!

Toying with business cycle dating

In this year´s ASSA Annual Meeting in January, Christina & David Romer (R&R) presented “NBER Business Cycle Dating: Retrospect and Prospect”:

“…Our most substantial proposal is that the NBER continue this evolution by modifying its definition of a recession to emphasize increases in economic slack [Deviations from potential output and/or unemployment] rather than declines in economic activity…”

“…Throughout the paper, we make use of Hamilton´s (1989) Markov switching model as a framework for investigating and assessing the NBER dates. Though judgement will surely never be (and should not be) eliminated from the NBER business cycle dating process, it is useful to see what standard statistical analysis suggests and can contribute.”

On page 32, they move to Application: The implications of a two-regime model using slack for dating US business cycle since 1949:

“We have argued that a two-regime model provides insights into short-run fluctuations. And we have argued for potentially refining the definition of a recession to emphasize large and rapid increases in economic slack rather than declines in economic activity. Here, we combine the two approaches by applying Hamilton´s two-regime model to estimates of slack and exploring the implications for the dating of postwar recessions.”

According to R&R (page 34):

“The largest disagreement between the two regimes estimates using slack and the NBER occurs at the start of the Great Recession. The NBER identifies both 2008Q1 and 2008Q2 as part of the recession (with the peak occurring in 2007Q4), while our estimates (see table 1) put the probability of recession as just 21% in 2008Q1 and 43% in 2008Q2.”

Table 1 Economic Performance going into the Great Recession

Quarter NBER Date

In Recession?

Agreement of 2-Regime Model Shortfall of GDP from Potential Unemployment minus Nat Rate
2007Q4 No 97% -0.6% 0.6%
2008Q1 Yes 21% 4.2% 0.9%
2008Q2 Yes 43% -0.2% 1.4%
2008Q3 Yes 91% 3.9% 2.7%

It is somewhat confusing! The 2-Regime model only “fully” agrees with the NBER that the economy was in a recession from 200Q3. The GDP gap roams all over the place, while the unemployment gap is increasing consistently over time.

Although R&R suggest the NBER emphasize measures of slack, those measures are very imprecise. This is clear given the CBO systematic revisions of potential output in the chart below.

Since I´m “toying” with dates, I´ll try using the NGDP Level target yardstick to see what it says about the Great Recession. (Useful recent primers on Nominal GDP Level Targeting are David Beckworth and Steve Ambler).

In the years preceding the Great Recession, there were many things happening. There was the oil shock that began in 2004 and gathered force in subsequent years. There was the bursting of the house price bubble that peaked in mid-2006 and, from early 2007, the problems with the financial system began, first affecting mortgage finance houses but soon extending to banks, culminating in the Lehmann fiasco ofSeptember 2008.

The next chart  the oil and house price shocks.

The predictable effect of an oil (or supply) shock is to reduce the real growth rate and increase inflation (at least that of the headline variety). The charts indicate that was what happened.

The chart below shows that when real growth fell due to the supply shock, real output (RGDP) dropped below the long-term trend (“potential”?). Does this mean the economy is in a recession? If that were true, the recession would have begun in 2006!

In that situation, how should monetary policy behave? Bernanke was quite aware of this problem. Ten years before, for example, Bernanke et al published Systematic Monetary Policy and the Effects of Oil Price Shocks”. (1997)

In the conclusion, they state:

“Substantively, our results suggest that an important part of the effect of oil price shocks on the economy results not from the change in oil prices, per se, but from the resulting tightening of monetary policy. This finding may help to explain the apparently large effects of oil price changes found by Hamilton and many others.”

In the chart below, we observe that during his first two years as Chair, Bernanke seems to have “listened to himself” because NGDP remained very close to the target level path all the way through the end of 2007.

With NGDP kept on target, the effects of the supply shock are “optimized”. Headline inflation, as we saw previously will rise, but if there is little or no change in NGDP growth, core measures of inflation will remain contained.

During the first quarter of 2008, NGDP was somewhat constrained. This likely reflects the FOMC´s worries with inflation. RGDP growth dropped further, but during the second quarter of 2008, the Fed seemed to be trying to get NGDP back to trend. RGDP growth responded as expected and core inflation remained subdued.

At that point, June 2008, it appears Bernanke reverted to focus almost singly on inflation, maybe remembering what he had written 81/2 years before in What Happens when Greenspan is gone? (Jan 2000):

“U .S. monetary policy has been remarkably successful during Alan Greenspan’s 121/2 years as Federal Reserve chairman. But although President Clinton yesterday reappointed the 73-year-old Mr. Greenspan to a new term ending in 2004, the chairman will not be around forever. To ensure that monetary policy stays on track after Mr. Greenspan, the Fed should be thinking through its approach to monetary policy now. The Fed needs an approach that consolidates the gains of the Greenspan years and ensures that those successful policies will continue; even if future Fed chairmen are less skillful or less committed to price stability than Mr. Greenspan has been.

We think the best bet lies in a framework known as inflation targeting, which has been employed with great success in recent years by most of the world’s biggest economies, except for Japan. Inflation targeting is a monetary-policy framework that commits the central bank to a forward-looking pursuit of low inflation; the source of the Fed’s current great performance; but also promotes a more open and accountable policy-making process. More transparency and accountability would help keep the Fed on track, and a more open Fed would be good for financial markets and more consistent with our democratic political system.”

This is evident in his summary of the FOMC Meeting June 2008 (page 97), where Bernanke says:

“My bottom line is that I think the tail risks on the growth and financial side have moderated. I do think, however, that they remain significant. We cannot ignore them. I’m also becoming concerned about the inflation side, and I think our rhetoric, our statement, and our body language at this point need to reflect that concern. We need to begin to prepare ourselves to respond through policy to the inflation risk; but we need to pick our moment, and we cannot be halfhearted. When the time comes, we need to make that decision and move that way because a halfhearted approach is going to give us the worst of both worlds. It’s going to give us financial stress without any benefits on inflation. So we have a very difficult problem here, and we are going to have to work together cooperatively to achieve what we want to achieve.”

From that point on, things derailed and a recession becomes clear in the data. It appears the NGDP Level Targeting framework agrees with Hamilton´s 2-regime model that the recession was a fixture of 2008Q3.

If NGDP had not begun to tank in 2008Q3, a recession might, later, have been called before 2008Q3, but it would never have been dubbed “Great”, more likely being short & shallow.

The takeaway, I believe, is that the usual blames placed on the bursting of the house price bubble, which led to the GFC and then to the GR is misplaced. Central banks love that narrative because it makes them the “guys who saved the day” (avoided another GD) when, in fact, they were the main culprits!

PS: The “guiltless” Fed is not a new thing. Back in 1937, John Williams (no relation to the New York Fed namesake), Chief-Economist of the Fed, Board Member and professor at Harvard (so unimpeachable qualifications, said about the 1937 downturn:

If action is taken now it will be rationalized that, in the event of recovery, the action was what was needed and the System was the cause of the downturn. It makes a bad record and confused thinking. I am convinced that the thing is primarily non-monetary and I would like to see it through on that ground. There is no good reason now for a major depression and that being the case there is a good chance of a non-monetary program working out and I would rather not muddy the record with action that might be misinterpreted.

Bernanke: interest rate junkie and inflation-targeting nutter

A James Alexander post

Seems like Ben Bernanke has tried to get the final word before the next FOMC meeting, as sort of ex officio member. In a blog post he strongly defends negative interest rates and rails against raising the inflation target as if people were proposing 10% inflation targets. It seems no more than 2% inflation or we are all doomed. He does mention NGDP targeting but misunderstands it badly.

His post is so full of errors that it has hard to know where to start.

Nominal interest rates are very low, and in a world of excess global saving, low inflation, and high demand for safe assets like government debt, there’s a good chance that they will be low for a long time.

What does “excess global saving” mean? In macroeconomics “saving” is part of an identity equal to “investment”. Like MV=PY. Saving can’t be in excess it has to equal investment.

Being generous, perhaps he means there is too much demand to hold money? In which case, central banks should supply more to bring demand and supply into balance; or threaten to do so until demand increases and more is spent.

Interest rates are my first love

When the next recession arrives, there may be limited room for the interest-rate cuts that have traditionally been central banks’ primary tool for sustaining employment and keeping inflation near target.

This is a very basic error. It is a view that sees interest rates as the primary tool, rather than a symptom of monetary policy. Interest rates react to nominal growth expectations and these are driven by central banks supplying more or less high-powered money. Interest rates are low in the US because nominal growth expectations are low. Yet US Base Money has been shrinking at between 3-6% for over a year now. Doesn’t he know this?

Gets the case for NGDP Targeting very wrong

Outside the United States, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has expressed openness to targeting nominal GDP (which essentially involves targeting a higher inflation rate when GDP growth is low)

Err, just no, that is not what it is. NGDP targeting asks for a stable growth of NGDP. It particularly targets expectations of growth as expectations drive action – just like in the theory of targeting inflation expectations. Targeting expectations also avoids near term noise in actual data, just like with inflation targeting. More generally, it provides nominal stability, thus preventing the occurrence of major demand shocks, especially those that flow from monetary policy reacting to supply shocks (like the one Bernanke himself presided over in 2008).

NGDP targeting does not target “higher inflation”. It is agnostic about inflation. Market Monetarists are often very sceptical that inflation can be accurately measured. And, they are certainly sceptical a central bank can target inflation. It is a sprite and it makes (Real) GDP equally hard to calculate, in real time or even forecast. People live and work in the nominal world, not the Real world.

Interest rates are best even when negative

The rest of the article is all about the pros and cons of negative interest rates (many pros) versus a higher inflation target (many cons).

The extended discussion on real rates leaves me cold. I don’t really understand what inflation is so I struggle to understand the meaning of a real interest rate and find it very hard to comprehend the neutral real rate.

I also know the public finds negative rates almost incomprehensible and regard such a policy as a total failure by “the authorities”, whoever they are. Bernanke’s strong support for negative rates shows just how out of touch he must be with real people. He claims Europeans and Japanese under these negative interest regimes are coping well. That is just not true.

He even suggests that negative rates are only temporary, and that everyone knows it, not realising that this renders them toothless, as it promises tightening around the corner.

Whoooo, don’t let the inflation genie out of the bottle

Higher inflation has costs of its own, of course, including making economic planning more difficult and impeding the functioning of markets. Some recent research suggests that these costs are smaller than we thought, particularly at comparatively modest inflation rates. More work is needed on this issue. Higher inflation may also bring with it financial stability risks, including distortions it creates in tax and accounting systems and the fact that an unexpected increase in inflation would impose capital losses on holders of long-term bonds, including banks, insurance companies, and pension funds.

It is hard to know what “higher inflation” he is talking about. 3%, 4%? The golden eras of the US economy usually had higher inflation than today. The lowflation, or rather low nominal growth, of the Great Stagnation he helped create is the thing making economic planning more difficult and impeding the functioning of markets. Economies need healthy nominal growth to be flexible enough in rewards to allow all to see growth in returns, some faster than others. At a crushing 3% or less nominal growth, at a depressed NGDP level (see chart below), this cannot happen.

ja-bernanke-junkie-nutter

Downwardly sticky wages are a massive problem causing recessions, but also constraining productivity growth  in a low nominal growth environment. Yet Bernanke calls for more work! What have the thousands of central bank-employed PhDs been doing all these years? Twiddling their thumbs.

Is Bernanke talking his own book and/or that of his employers?

Financial stability risks are worst in deflationary environments, no question, just look at the Great Recession or the Great Depression. Tax and accounting issues arise only when inflation is well above 10% or more, and then they are still quite theoretical rather than real. Bernanke seems to be fearing a return to the worst years of the 1970s. He can’t be serious.

And then he worries about his various new employers seeing capital losses from betting wrong on financial markets. Well, does he think they should be guaranteed winnings?

The article goes on and on with the familiar litany of worries about higher inflation hurting savers, needing political approval etc. etc. No one is proposing 10% inflation. Just 3 or 4%, or better still a commitment to a level target, an average target, and not constant undershooting. Or, better, a nominal income/NGDP level target.

He seems to be randomly firing at straw men. He even clutches at the idea of more fiscal activism, as if that could work without threatening the inflation target. He well knows the Fed would offset it at the first opportunity.

He never used to be quite this bad, as Scott Sumner tirelessly points out when Market Monetarists get fed up with these manias of the modern Bernanke.

Perhaps he’s worried about his lowflation legacy crumbling. It couldn’t happen soon enough for us. He seems to have become a caricature of things he may have ridiculed in the past: an interest rate junkie and an inflation-targeting nutter.

At least Bernanke gets the grade order right

In a long interview with Freakonomics, Bernanke has the chance to self-grade:

DUBNER: Alright, so if you’re going to give yourself a letter grade for before and after, what are your letter grades?

BERNANKE: C- and A-, something like that.  But I don’t — it’s really not up to me.  I think that, you know, others have to make those judgments.  In the end, we did stabilize the system and the economy has recovered.  And the U.S. recovery, while not everything we would like, has been pretty good compared to other industrial countries.

He´s too easy on himself. He started bungling from day 1 at the job. The errors quickly accumulated, giving rise to “Great Recession”. So that´s not a C-, but a big F.

I think George Selgin would do the same. From his review of Bernanke´s The Courage to Act, we read:

…a central bank that allows the overall volume of spending to collapse has blown it, no matter how much emergency lending it undertakes…

Given his failing grade in the “first exam”, he should have strived for an A+ in the “second exam”. But no, he managed at best a C-. So overall, he failed BIG!  It appears Yellen wants to compound on the mistakes!

Crimes against the economy and, by extension, against its citizens

In 1997, Bernanke (with Gertler and Watson) wrote “Systematic Monetary Policy and the Effiects of Oil Price Shocks“:

THE PRINCIPAL OBJECTIVE of this paper is to increase our understanding of the role of monetary policy in postwar U. S. business cycles. We take as our starting point two common findings in the recent monetary policy literature based on vector autoregressions (VARs).’

…Put more positively, if one takes the VAR evidence on monetary policy seriously (as we do), then any case for an important role of monetary policy in the business cycle rests on the argument that the choice of the monetary policy rule (the “reaction function”) has significant macroeconomic effects.

…The results are reasonable, with all variables exhibiting their expected qualitative behaviors. In particular, the absence of an endogenously restrictive monetary policy results in higher output and prices, as one would anticipate. Quantitatively, the effects are large, in that a nonresponsive monetary policy suffices to eliminate most of the output effect of an oil price shock, particularly after the first eight to ten months.

…The conclusion that a substantial part of the real effects of oil price shocks is due to the monetary policy response helps to explain why the effects of these shocks seems larger than can easily be explained in neoclassical (flexible price) models.

…Substantively, our results suggest that an important part of the effect of oil price shocks on the economy results not from the change in oil prices, per se, but from the resulting tightening of monetary policy. This finding may help to explain the apparently large effects of oil price changes found by Hamilton and many others.

In other words the explicit warning is: “Don´t impose a negative demand shock over a negative supply shock”.

Then I read this from Blanchard, Cerutti & Summers: Inflation and Activity – Two Explorations and their Monetary Policy Implications:

“We find that, indeed, recessions associated with either oil price increases or with financial crisis are more likely to be followed by lower output later. But we find that recessions plausibly triggered by demand shocks are also often followed by lower output or even lower output growth.”

Therefore, it appears that Bernanke (and the Fed) imposed a massive negative demand shock on a significantly negative supply shock, comprising both an oil shock and a financial crisis!

That´s the main cause of the Great Recession (which has morphed into the “New Normal” or “Secular Stagnation”). The house price boom and bust and the ensuing financial crisis, in addition to “second fidllers” in the drama, serve as the “strawmen” that exculpate the Fed and even helped turn its Chairman into Person of the Year, 2009, Hero and bestselling author!

The story is illustrated below.

We start in late 2003, when the oil shock (could call it the “China shock”) began. From then to mid-2008, the price of oil quadrupled. According to Bernanke, you shouldn´t “drink” from that fountain.

Crimes_1

From 2003 to January 2006, it was Greenspan´s show. It appears that Greenspan followed Bernanke´s advice, and didn´t allow monetary policy (gauged by NGDP growth) to tighten. But Bernanke forgot his own counsel, and chose a monetary policy rule (strong reaction to the rise in headline inflation) with significantly negative macroeconomic effects.

Crimes_2

Crimes_3

As we know, that was only the beginning. Things became much worse during the next 12 months.

Let´s backtrack and ask the question: Was Greenspan lucky?

The answer to this question leads us to examine in greater depth the role of monetary policy in generating the “Great Recession”.

The Dynamic AS/AD model tells us that a negative (positive) AS (oil) shock will decrease (increase) real growth and increase (decrease) inflation.

Bernanke et al very sensible conclusion from 1997 was that monetary policy should not react to those shocks.

But how can we gauge the stance of monetary policy? As Bernanke, channeling Milton Friedman, once said:

“As emphasized by Friedman (in his eleventh proposition) and by Allan Meltzer, nominal interest rates are not good indicators of the stance of policy, as a high nominal interest rate can indicate either monetary tightness or ease, depending on the state of inflation expectations. Indeed, confusing low nominal interest rates with monetary ease was the source of major problems in the 1930s, and it has perhaps been a problem in Japan in recent years as wellThe real short-term interest rate, another candidate measure of policy stance, is also imperfect, because it mixes monetary and real influences, such as the rate of productivity growth

The absence of a clear and straightforward measure of monetary ease or tightness is a major problem in practice. How can we know, for example, whether policy is “neutral” or excessively “activist”?

Ultimately, it appears, one can check to see if an economy has a stable monetary background only by looking at macroeconomic indicators such as nominal GDP growth and inflation…”

[Note: Unfortunately, he preferred to concentrate on inflation, and worse, the headline variety, which was being buffeted by the oil and commodity price shocks! As indicated by the Dynamic AS/AD (DASAD) model, inflation is not always a good indicator of the stance of monetary policy.]

The chart below provides a view of the stance of monetary policy by looking at the NGDP gap. The NGDP gap is the deviation of NGDP from its stable trend path. Therefore, if, for example, NGDP is rising above trend, monetary policy is deemed “loose” and “loosening”. Other cases are illustrated in the chart. The unemployment rate stands as counterpart for the real effects of monetary policy.

Crimes_4

In the second half of the 1990s, the economy experienced a positive (productivity) supply shock. According to the DASAD model, inflation falls and real growth increases (unemployment falls).

The chart above tells us that Greenspan allowed monetary policy to loosen, magnifying the growth and employment effects of the shock. When unemployment dropped below 4%, the “Phillips Curve/Slack crowd” took over and monetary policy tightened.

The Fed “overtightened” monetary policy [note: despite interest rates falling fast], as NGDP continued to fall below trend.

In mid-2003, the Fed adopted “Forward Guidance”, in effect “loosening” monetary policy, so that NGDP began to climb back to trend. If you refer to the NGDP growth chart at the beginning, you will notice that NGDP was growing at the high rate of 6.5% from late 2003 to early 2006. That´s the only way NGDP can climb back to trend, i.e. by growing for a time at a rate above the trend growth rate of around 5.4%.

Greenspan was “lucky” because, when the oil shock hit, monetary policy was on a “correction” trend, and thus minimized the negative real growth effect of the shock, with the unemployment rate even turning down.

When Bernanke took the helm, NGDP was “on trend”, i.e. NGDP growth was “just right” to provide a “stable monetary background”. But he forgot what he had known for 10 years and adopted a monetary reaction function focused on headline inflation. With the ongoing and even strengthening oil shock, monetary policy was tightened with NGDP falling below trend at a fast pace.

Now, given the fragile financial economic environment, the tightening of monetary policy only made that environment more fragile

At that point, another Great Depression was in the making, so Bernanke, faithful to his credit channel view of the propagation of the Great Depression, came quickly to the rescue of banks.

Monetary policy, however, remained tight and was only weakly loosened with the introduction of QE1 in March 2009.

NGDP and RGDP growth recovered, but for the past five years have remained at a level well below the previous trend growth rates; no wander the monikers “New Normal” and “Secular Stagnation” have become household words!

Crimes_5

The Blanchard et all paper rationalize this state of affairs by indicating that “even recessions triggered by demand shocks are often followed by lower output or even lower output growth”.

That sort of reasoning forgets that one thing monetary policy can avoid, or at least minimize the effects of, are demand shocks! Moreover, as Bernanke told us in 1997, monetary policy can also minimize the output effects of supply shocks, particularly by not reacting to those types of shocks.

Monetary policy, however, does not participate in the discussions. In a recent paper, “Long-term damage from the Great Recession in OECD countries”, for example, Lawrence Ball writes:

“The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 triggered national recessions of varying severity. The hardest-hit economies include those in the periphery of the euro area, which experienced severe banking and debt crises. At the other extreme, Australia was almost unscathed because of factors including fiscal stimulus and strong exports to Asia.”

One did badly because of banking and debt crisis. The other did well because of fiscal stimulus!

Interestingly, the economies that didn´t experience a recession (or a financial crisis) in 2008-09, like Australia, Israel and Poland, are the ones in which monetary policy managed to keep NGDP growth close to trend! That seems to be just luck because Stanley Fischer, now Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, at the time was head of the Bank of Israel, and from his recent utterances still has no idea why he was successful!

And when you hear someone like New York Fed president Dudley, who has a permanent vote at the FOMC, express himself so disjointedly:

“We hope that relatively soon we will become reasonably confident that inflation will return to our 2 percent objective,” he said at Hofstra University. Dudley said it was “very logical” to expect that the Fed’s inflation and employment conditions would be met “soon,” allowing policymakers to “start thinking about raising the short-term interest rates.”

You easily conclude that the economy will likely get worse!

Appendix

One point emphasized by both the Blanchard et al and Larry Ball´s article, is the concept of hysteresis (and super-hysteresis), which concerns the level (and growth rate) of real output following real or nominal shocks.

The chart below casts some doubt on the idea, at least for the US.

Crimes_6

Even the oil shocks of the 1970s or the demand shock from Volcker’s disinflation did not permanently reduce the level or growth rate of real output, which always returned to trend (the trend in the chart was formed from 1970 to 1997).

The more recent Bernanke/Yellen supply/demand shock has worked out differently, with both the level and growth rate of output forcefully reduced, i.e. denoting hysteresis/super-hysteresis!

As argued above, that comes mostly from the misconceived monetary policy adopted since Bernanke took over. That policy has drastically reduced both the target level of NGDP and its growth rate. The charts illustrate for the most recent period.

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The real damage is that now the much lower level and growth rate of real output have become the “New Normal”!

The chart below well describes the inadequacy of using interest rates to gauge the stance of monetary policy. Interest rates, in fact, say that monetary policy is loosening when it is tightening, and vice-versa! That is consistent with Friedman´s saying from 1968: “low interest rates indicate that monetary policy has been tight and high interest rates that it has been easy”.

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Another point often made, especially by the people at the FOMC, is that the unemployment rate is down to levels that indicate the economy is running out of slack (so policy must be “tightened”).

I find it wrong to reason from an unemployment change when unemployment at present means something possibly very different from what it meant in previous decades. The chart illustrates that at present, both unemployment and labor force participation rates are falling. In previous periods, a fall in unemployment went together with increasing or high labor force participation.

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The tight coincidence between the fall in participation rates and the deep drop of NGDP below trend also make me skeptical to attribute any significant share of the drop in participation to structural/demographic factors.

Here also, most of the damage to the labor market lies in the hands of the misguided monetary policy adopted by the Bernanke/Yellen Fed! They feel that “the time has come to “tighten” monetary policy”. By misunderstanding monetary policy, they ignore that for the past year monetary policy has been tightening, with implications for the dollar and oil prices!

The charts illustrate:

Crimes_10

And, being clueless, they think the low inflation is something temporary that is due to the oil and exchange rate effect. In other words, monetary policy is even absent from direct discussions of inflation!

How a myth is born

Bernanke HeroFirst, you get a “The Hero” magazine cover

 

Bernanke Person of the YearThen you get to be Person of the Year

Bernanke Hero1

And finally, you write a memoir titled “The Courage to Act”

 

 

and voilá, the myth is born!

The latest invocation comes from Simon Wren-Lewis:

Here is an extract from an interview with Ben Bernanke by George Eaton in the New Statesman:

Though a depression was averted in 2008, the recovery in the US and the UK has been slow. Bernanke partly blames the imposition of fiscal austerity (spending cuts and tax rises), which limited the effectiveness of monetary stimulus. “All the major industrial countries – US, UK, eurozone – ran too quickly to budget-cutting, given the severity of the recession and the level of unemployment.”

Partly thanks to Bernanke’s leadership (and knowledge), the Great Recession was not as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Monetary policy reacted much more quickly, and financial institutions were (nearly all) bailed out. In 2009 we also enacted fiscal stimulus, but in 2010 we reverted to the policies of the early 1930s with fiscal austerity. That mistake was partly the result of panic following events in the Eurozone (see the IMF analysis discussed here), but it also reflected political opportunism on the right.

However, as Scott Sumner concludes in a recent post:

That’s why it’s so important to get the facts right. Just as the Abe government showed the BOJ was not out of ammo in the early 2000s, a close examination of what the Fed did and didn’t do, and a cross country comparison of monetary policy during the Great Recession and recovery, shows that monetary policy is always and everywhere highly effective.

What are the facts?

The chart shows that during the first few months of the Great Depression (GD) and the Great Recession (GR), the behaviour of NGDP was similar.

Myth_1

After that, things were very different. What Bernanke´s knowledge did was to apply the results from his “made my name” 1983 article “Nonmonetary effects of the financial crisis in the propagation of the Great Depression”, by going on a bank bail-out spree, thus avoiding the propagation factors that were very “active” in 1931/32.

The charts from the Great Depression indicate what Bernanke avoided. They also show that to get the economy to “turn around” and take a path back to the previous trend, monetary policy has to be really expansionary. That was true even with interest rates at the ZLB, as happened when FDR made a significant change in the monetary regime, cutting the link to gold in March 1933, almost four years after the start of the depression! NGDP growth went up by enough to put the economy on the path back to trend.

Myth_2

The next charts show what happened now. Notice that in the early 2000s, Greenspan also allowed NGDP to drop below trend, but that mistake was fully offset, and by the time Bernanke took the Fed´s helm. NGDP was back on trend.

Without going in to all the details, the fact is that Bernanke allowed NGDP to fall in “Great Depression style”. As mentioned, he avoided a second “GD” by bailing-out the financial system. In addition, by introducing QE in March 2009, monetary policy reacted much more quickly than in the “GD”.

Myth_3

However, notice the difference. In Bernanke´s case, monetary policy was just sufficient to put the economy on a growing trend along a lower level path. It never tried, as happened after March 1933, to get back to the original trend path. Thus, the economy is stuck in a “lesser depression” a.k.a. “Great Stagnation”.

And that really has nothing to do with fiscal policy.

The low regard for things economic

In “Fed Speak on Main Street“, Carola Binder finds that:

Using polling data for the US documents that the US public lacks knowledge about monetary policy. In particular, only one in every three Americans was able to correctly identify the chair of the Federal Reserve System. Very few were able to predict low levels of inflation when asked about inflation over next ten years. Nor did they appear to display much eagerness to learn about the Fed and monetary policy.

In terms of social media, numbers of Twitter and Facebook followers of the Federal Reserve System do not appear remarkable. In fact, FBI, the CIA, and Paul Krugman, among others, have more followers than the entire Federal Reserve System. Google searches confirm this paucity of interest. Total online searches for macroeconomic variables like GDP, the unemployment rate, and inflation are consistently topped by online searches for puppies.

Nevertheless, Bernanke´s book seems to be doing well. According to Amazon:

Bernanke: “The man in the ‘irony’ mask”

To my mind, Bernanke is the living embodiment of irony. Irony has followed him closely through the last few decades. Below a small but diverse sample.

What Happens when Greenspan is gone? (Jan 2000):

U .S. monetary policy has been remarkably successful during Alan Greenspan’s 121/2 years as Federal Reserve chairman. But although President Clinton yesterday reappointed the 73-year-old Mr. Greenspan to a new term ending in 2004, the chairman will not be around forever. To ensure that monetary policy stays on track after Mr. Greenspan, the Fed should be thinking through its approach to monetary policy now. The Fed needs an approach that consolidates the gains of the Greenspan years and ensures that those successful policies will continue; even if future Fed chairmen are less skillful or less committed to price stability than Mr. Greenspan has been.

We think the best bet lies in a framework known as inflation targeting, which has been employed with great success in recent years by most of the world’s biggest economies, except for Japan. Inflation targeting is a monetary-policy framework that commits the central bank to a forward-looking pursuit of low inflation; the source of the Fed’s current great performance; but also promotes a more open and accountable policy-making process. More transparency and accountability would help keep the Fed on track, and a more open Fed would be good for financial markets and more consistent with our democratic political system.

He was what happened, and he did exactly what he said should be done. Was it a success? To be kind, not so much.

Systematic MP and the effects of oil price shocks (June/1997):

Substantively, our results support that an important part of the effect of oil price shocks on the economy results not from the change in oil price per se, but from the resulting tightening of monetary policy.

This finding may help explain the apparently large effects of oil price changes found by Hamilton (1983) and many others.

Soon after becoming Chairman of the BoG an oil shock materialized. What did Bernanke do? He forgot about his “findings” and tightened monetary policy (constraining NGDP growth (see below)).

On Milton Friedman´s 90th Birthday (Nov 2002):

Once Roosevelt was sworn in, his declaration of a national bank holiday and, subsequently, his cutting the link between the dollar and gold initiated the expansion of money, prices, and output.

Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.

He did it, albeit at a much smaller scale. Why? Because he acted on his “knowledge” of the “credit channel”. From his 1983 article Non-Monetary Factors of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression:

A second possibility is that banking panics contributed to the collapse of output and prices through nonmonetary mechanisms. My own early work (Bernanke, 1983) argued that the effective closing down of the banking system might have had an adverse impact by creating impediments to the normal intermediation of credit, as well as by reducing the quantity of transactions media.

That was what propagated the depression. By “saving” the banks, Bernanke´s Fed “cut-off the propagation mechanism”, leaving only the deleterious effects of the monetary policy mistakes.

What were those mistakes? An idea comes from On the legacy of Milton and Rose Friedman´s Free to Choose (2003):

As emphasized by Friedman (in his eleventh proposition) and by Allan Meltzer, nominal interest rates are not good indicators of the stance of policy, as a high nominal interest rate can indicate either monetary tightness or ease, depending on the state of inflation expectations. Indeed, confusing low nominal interest rates with monetary ease was the source of major problems in the 1930s, and it has perhaps been a problem in Japan in recent years as wellThe real short-term interest rate, another candidate measure of policy stance, is also imperfect, because it mixes monetary and real influences, such as the rate of productivity growth

The absence of a clear and straightforward measure of monetary ease or tightness is a major problem in practice. How can we know, for example, whether policy is “neutral” or excessively “activist”?

Ultimately, it appears, one can check to see if an economy has a stable monetary background only by looking at macroeconomic indicators such as nominal GDP growth and inflation

Unfortunately, he preferred to concentrate on inflation, and worse, the headline variety, which was being buffeted by the oil and commodity price shocks! Apparently, inflation is not always a good indicator of the stance of monetary policy.

Japanese Monetary Policy: A case of self-induced paralysis (Dec 1999):

Before discussing ways in which Japanese monetary policy could become more expansionary, I will briefly discuss the evidence for the view that a more expansionary monetary policy is needed. As already suggested, I do not deny that important structural problems, in the financial system and elsewhere, are helping to constrain Japanese growth. But I also believe that there is compelling evidence that the Japanese economy is also suffering today from an aggregate demand deficiency. If monetary policy could deliver increased nominal spending, some of the difficult structural problems that Japan faces would no longer seem so difficult.

It is true that current monetary conditions in Japan limit the effectiveness of standard open-market operations. However, as I will argue in the remainder of the paper, liquidity trap or no, monetary policy retains considerable power to expand nominal aggregate demand. Our diagnosis of what ails the Japanese economy implies that these actions could do a great deal to end the ten-year slump.

Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening? To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.

Twelve years later, “Rooseveltian Resolve” was asked of him by Christina Romer in

Dear Ben: It’s Time for Your Volcker Moment (2011):

For evidence that adopting the new target could help fix the economy, look at the 1930s. Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t talk in terms of targeting nominal G.D.P., he spoke of getting prices and incomes back to their pre-Depression levelsAcademic studies suggest that this commitment played an important role in bringing about recovery.

President Roosevelt backed up his statements. He suspended the gold standard and let the dollar depreciate. He got Congress to pass New Deal spending legislation and had the Treasury monetize a large gold inflow.The result was an end to deflationary expectations , leading to the most impressive swing the country has ever seen from horrible contraction to rapid growth.

Would nominal G.D.P. targeting work as well today? There would likely be unexpected developments, just as there were in the Volcker period. But the new target would have a better chance of meaningfully reducing unemployment than any other monetary policy under discussion.

Because it directly reflects the Fed’s two central concerns — price stability and real economic performance — nominal G.D.P. is a simple and sensible target for long after the economy recovers. This is very different from Mr. Volcker’s money target, which was abandoned after only a few years because of instability in the relationship between money growth and the Fed’s ultimate objectives.

Desperate times call for bold measures. Paul Volcker understood this in 1979. Franklin D. Roosevelt understood it in 1933. This is Ben Bernanke’s moment. He needs to seize it.

Romer´s article was published Oct 29/11. Just 3 days later, the FOMC met. They discussed NGDPT, but rejected it and 2 months later Bernanke realized his longtime dream: IT became official @2%!

Again he forgot. This time his advice to Japanese monetary authorities. Final irony: when was inflation last at 2%? On the month (Jan/12) 2% became the target!

Mask of Irony

NGDP Targeting and FOMC discussions

Curiously, at the end of 1982 at the high point of unemployment and the low point of growth, with inflation below 6%, the lowest level reached since 1974, the Fed discussed NGDP targeting:

MORRIS. I think we need a proxy–an independent intermediate target– for nominal GNP, or the closest thing we can come to as a proxy for nominal GNP, because that’s what the name of the game is supposed to be.

During the December 1992 FOMC meeting there was a detailed discussion of NGDP targeting. An excerpt:

JORDAN. This question of when the time is going to come to change the [funds] rate–especially in an upward direction–and the criteria for doing so has been on my mind a lot, and I’m sure it has been in everybody’s thinking. This is my seventh meeting, and I thought it was time to go back and review the last year and to look at what actually has happened in terms of all kinds of economic indicators–monetary as well as economic indicators, nominal and real indicators–and Committee actions to see if I could deduce an implicit model. I read the newsletters, as I’m sure everybody does; and [unintelligible] and I don’t see it in the numbers, it’s certainly not inflation. It’s not the various money measures: Ml, M2, the base, or bank reserves. I don’t even think its real GDP. I put together a table–a big matrix of every forecast for as many quarters out as the Greenbook does it–for every meeting for the last year. What struck me was that it looked as if we were on a de facto nominal GNP target. When nominal GNP is at or above expectations, the funds rate is held stable; but when nominal GNP comes in below what has been expected, we cut the funds rate

In closing the discussion Greenspan says:

As I read it, there is no debate within this Committee to abandon our view that a non-inflationary environment is best for this country over the longer term. Everything else, once we’ve said that, becomes technical questions. I would say in that context that on the basis of the studies, we have seen that to drive nominal GDP, let’s assume at 4-1/2 percent, in our old philosophy we would have said that [requires] a 4-1/2 percent growth in M2. In today’s analysis, we would say it’s significantly less than that. I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal of which the money supply relationships are technical mechanisms to achieve that.

From Bernanke´s Book as tweeted by Neil Irwin:

The FOMC had a long, serious discussion of NGDP targeting in 2011. And soundly rejected it.

BBB_0

Bernanke is really an inflation targeting freak! Note than in 1982 or 1992, no one said that by targeting NGDP the Fed “had suddenly decided it was willing to tolerate higher inflation, possibly for many years”. And just two months after this discussion, in January 2012, the Fed made the 2% target official policy!

Notice that in 1992, Greenspan said: “I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal…”

That said, I think it is worthwhile to check if Greenspan´s words were meaningful. The panel below pictures what went on in the NGDP, inflation and unemployment fronts from then to the end of his tenure.

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The next panel shows how those things continued into the Bernanke/Yellen era.

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One could say: “so what”? Inflation has remained low, even below the now official target, and unemployment has come down to a “comfortable” level. Bernanke has said the “Fed saved the economy – full employment without inflation is in sight”!

But, according to Bernanke:

Congress is largely responsible for the incomplete recovery from the 2008 financial crisisBen S. Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chairman, writes in a memoir published on Monday.

Mr. Bernanke, who left the Fed in January 2014 after eight years as chairman, says the Fed’s response to the crisis was bold and effective but insufficient.

“I often said that monetary policy was not a panacea — we needed Congress to do its part,” he says. “After the crisis calmed, that help was not forthcoming.”

In a few instances, Mr. Bernanke also acknowledges, the Fed could have done more. He writes that the decision not to lower rates in September 2008, immediately after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, “was certainly a mistake.” The Fed’s benchmark rate then stood at 2 percent; by the end of the year, it had been cut nearly to zero.

By “incomplete recovery”, I´ll take it he´s referring to the “gaping hole” that´s observed in the NGDP chart (the distance to the trend NGDP level). But that cannot be attributed to Congress. It refers to what Friedman said almost 50 years ago: “A second thing monetary policy can do is provide a stable background for the economy.”

Bernanke gave a narrow interpretation to “stable background”, defining it in terms of “low and stable inflation”. If instead of low and stable inflation he had pursued a stable growth path for nominal spending (NGDP) he would have avoided the crash.

Inflation is low, unemployment is back (almost) at “full employment”. So what´s missing, allowing the gap to remain wide open?

As the charts show, the unemployment rate has a different “meaning” in the two periods!

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And the last chart provides a “summary statistic”.

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In the 2001 recession, NGDP growth slumped, but was brought back up so that the trend level of NGDP was regained.

In the 2007-09 recession, NGDP growth “caved” and has remained far below the trend growth, implying that there has been no “recovery”, with the economy remaining “depressed”!

And that´s no fault of Congress, but the result of Bernanke´s (and the Fed´s) obsession with inflation!