Re-reading Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s latest testimony to Congress left me increasingly puzzled by his conclusion:
Monetary policy can be a powerful tool, but it is not a panacea for the problems currently faced by the U.S. economy. Fostering healthy growth and job creation is a shared responsibility of all economic policymakers, in close cooperation with the private sector. Fiscal policy is of critical importance, as I have noted today, but a wide range of other policies--pertaining to labor markets, housing, trade, taxation, and regulation, for example--also have important roles to play. For our part, we at the Federal Reserve will continue to work to help create an environment that provides the greatest possible economic opportunity for all Americans.
This is a clear effort to shift the focus away from monetary policy onto the fiscal side of the equation. But I think there is a significant flaw in that position. Fiscal policymakers will be completely unable to address medium- or long-term budget issues as long as there exists a sizable output gap and high levels of unemployment. Persistently low levels of output will necessitate deficit spending, and low interest rates will justify that spending. That is the lesson of Japan. Nor will the economy naturally gravitate toward such any other outcome – we are stuck in a liquidity trap. That is also the lesson of Japan.
Assuming the proximate cause of the current US economic environment is indeed a liquidity trap, then a solution to that problem lays solely in the hands of monetary policymakers. In short, the primary economic challenge is to lift the US from the zero bound floor; until that happens fiscal policy will limp along like that of Japan, with ever-growing debt that does little than serve as a partial stopgap. The deficit spending becomes a long-run outcome rather than a short-run solution.
Simply put, the Federal Reserve needs to take responsibility for ending the liquidity trap. Instead, as Scott Sumner summarizes:
The Fed has plenty of credibility, that’s not the problem. The problem is that they are using the credibility to assure investors that low inflation is here to stay. With the right target, there would probably be no need for massive quantitative easing, or other extraordinary policies.
First and foremost, low inflation is the primary objective of Fed policy. They have repeatedly set expectations that the increase in the balance sheet is only temporary, and will be reversed as soon as possible. On not one but two occasions this cycle they prematurely shifted gears to setting expectations for tighter policy, which is effectively the same thing as engaging in tighter policy. They have offered a half-hearted attempt to remedy this situation by announcing a commitment to low rates, but have made it remarkably clear it is not a real commitment. From the Fed minutes:
Most members, however, agreed that stating a conditional expectation for the level of the federal funds rate through mid-2013 provided useful guidance to the public, with some noting that such an indication did not remove the Committee's flexibility to adjust the policy rate earlier or later if economic conditions do not evolve as the Committee currently expects.
Fear of inflation prevents the Federal Reserve from making an unconditional commitment. And therein lies the stumbling block to real policy change. It is virtually impossible to imagine reestablishing the pre-recession nominal GDP trend, and entirely impossible to regain the pre-recession price trend, without accepting a temporary acceleration of inflation along the way.
More succinctly, we will not lift the economy off the zero-bound without accepting higher than 2% inflation. Since the Federal Reserve has made it clear they will not accept inflation greater than 2%, the economy will not clear the zero-bound. And if the economy does not clear the zero-bound, we will be faced with perpetual and unavoidable deficit spending.
Deficit spending is not accommodated by the Federal Reserve via low interest rates; it is made necessary because the Federal Reserve sees no urgency ending the lower bound challenge. Which means it is ridiculous to believe that the Fed can dump off this problem on fiscal policymakers. How can the state of monetary policy have deteriorated so much that now even Bernanke claims “regulation” is holding back the economy? Yet here we are.
Where should the Fed go from here? First and foremost, they need to make a commitment to pull away from the zero-bound. As Sumner suggests, they need this commitment clearly defined by a target such as reestablishing nominal GDP or price level. The need to implement open-ended action to achieve this target. My suggestion is to announce they will make permanent additions to their balance sheet by purchasing on the secondary market $5 billion of US Treasury securities every week until the target is reached. I think they need to make permanent additions to be credible – they have clearly expressed that previous balance sheet expansions should be viewed only as temporary.
Won’t this amount to monetization of deficit spending? Yes, but if Sumner is correct, less than might be feared, as the commitment is more important than the size of the purchases. And I already arrived at the conclusion, aided by Bernanke’s 2003 speech, that the situation requires a greater coordination of monetary and fiscal policy. Moreover, even if sizable purchases are required, there is no reason this needs to be a problem. As Bernanke has already explained, the Fed simply needs to make clear its target and once that target has been reached, they will adjust policy appropriately to maintain the nominal GDP or price level trend. In other words, purchases will be suspended and policy will by that point revert to traditional interest rate management, with the possible reduction of the portion of the balance-sheet expansion that to-date has been viewed as temporary.
Once the Fed achieves normal monetary conditions, the ball will be back in the hands of fiscal policymakers, who may then soon understand that policy is a lot different when interest rates create real constraints on spending and taxes. But that is a battle for another day.
Bottom Line: It is ludicrous for the Fed to declare the primary economic responsibility is now on fiscal policy. As long as we are in a liquidity trap, fiscal policy is stuck in a never-ending cycle of deficit spending. Absent that spending, the economy will simply slip backwards into recession again and again. The exit from the liquidity trap can only come from the monetary side of the equation. Try as he might Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke cannot escape his policy responsibilities. And we shouldn’t let him.