The Fed’s logic is faulty but may yet end up with the right answer

A James Alexander post

The last blog post was a great analysis of the last thirty years of US monetary policy as the Fed focused on Core PCE inflation and unemployment and for most of the time accidentally got NGDP growing on target. When the Fed switched rigidly to focusing on its own projections for Core PCE things started to go awry, both with unemployment and NGDP.

Still focusing on those projections since 2009 it has got things right in fits and starts only. Unemployment has ever so gradually returned to 5%, a record slow recovery. That said, there is still tons of labor market slack as evidenced by the participation ratios, ultra-low nominal wage growth and low quit rates. These factors mean there is very little productivity growth as the labor market is so lacking in energy. Core PCE keeps missing Fed projections of a return to 2%.

This troubled but not yet terrible situation is summed up by, actually caused by, the dreadful growth rate and level of NGDP.

So why does the Fed want to raise rates?

Trying to put myself in the mind of the average FOMC member I came up with this “logic”, although it is not logical – perhaps because it reflects so many competing views and not just one human brain:

1. The Fed wants to raise rates to give it the room to cut them when the data goes bad – even though we know the data will go bad due to the raising of rates, or the constant threat of raising rates.

2. The Fed is thus stuck as it really doesn’t want to:

a. use negative rates because the banks, insurance companies, money market mutual funds and savers will complain very loudly;

or,

b. do more/wider QE because too many politicians, internet Austrians/goldbugs, alt-right, progressives, socialists, etc. will all            complain about the Fed creating winners and losers “and may require legislation” as Yellen said;

or,

c. do helicopter money, defined here as directly new-money financed fiscal expenditure as it is bound to run up against any unaltered Core PCE inflation target projections

3. While the Fed needs rate-cutting firepower it is unlikely to have been able to raise before the data goes really bad

4. So the Fed has to look at more innovative alternatives than negative rates or more/wider QE. Thus it is tentatively looking at a higher inflation target or even level targets for inflation or nominal growth, instead as a sort of last resort back-up plan.

The Fed is causing this confusion becausthe logic is confused. It has the wrong targets and they are both causing and storing up trouble. Changing the targets would be the right thing to do, even if for all the wrong reasons.

 

“If you can’t hit the 2% target why introduce a harder one? Because …”

A James Alexander post

I was pleased to report some traction in the Market Monetarist campaign to see inflation targets substituted by, or added to, an NGDP growth target.

One common pushback I’ve received recently is if the central bank can’t hit a 2% target how can it hit a tougher target? It’s a reasonable question.

First, central banks in the US, UK, Euro Area and Japan, don’t want to hit their 2% targets. An odd claim, I know. But on closer inspection they now actually operate a 2% medium term target, crucially based on their own forecasts of inflation. Any time their medium term forecast approaches 2%, or worse moves above it, the noise level about interest rate paths gets very loud. The Fed even raised rates!

This targeting a target has been discussed before here, and is very depressing to economic activity, real and nominal. It ends up with actual inflation consistently below the 2% target. It is rather like most people’s two year out plans, they never seem to quite come off.

Shoot higher, achieve more

Second, moving to a 4% inflation target and missing it by 1-2% is far less damaging than missing a 2% target by 1-2%. Modest 2-3% inflation is consistent with 5% nominal growth, i.e. trend nominal growth. Stable nominal growth is the proper target for central banks, agreed by most people, even central banks.

Central banks wouldn’t have to hit 4% but turning it into a target would enable the market to believe the central banks were happy with 2-3% inflation now. Even four percent inflation, if achieved, would not be terribly damaging either. Market Monetarists are not crazy inflationists, just dull-sounding moderate inflationists, and very hostile to missing lowflation targets. The truth of the matter is that they don´t like the word “inflation”.

Third, simply moving the target obviates the need for the sort of oxymoronic “responsibly promise to do something irresponsible” thing Paul Krugman again suggests in a response to a Tony Yates blog post. No one in markets takes such nonsense seriously.

Central banks do not operate like that, and if they did markets would be worried about other stuff pretty quickly. Just change the target to something more ambitious, but still credible and responsible. It would also end the ridiculously unnecessary, frankly idle, chatter about helicopter drops.

Last an NGDP growth target is a different animal to an inflation target. NGDP is simply aggregate demand or aggregate income. It is what the central banks have almost exact control over. Inflation is a terrifically hard to calculate residual of the difference between easy to calculate nominal demand and terrifically hard to calculate real demand.

The exact balance of any nominal growth between real and inflationary growth is very difficult to divine in real time. It is, nevertheless, very important to understand and to fix if the balance is too much inflation and not enough real. That debate is no concern of the central bank. Inflation is simply the wrong target for them. They control money and therefore the other half of all economic transactions, not output. It’s a powerful tool, use it!