Insure Against Central Bank Incompetence: My Reply To The New Keynesian Strikeforce

by: David Beckworth

Apparently, it is open season on market monetarists. The red dots you see on our chest are from the laser scopes on the new keynesian guns of Tony Yates, Simon Wren-Lewis, and Paul Krugman. These individuals have been firing away with their critiques of market monetarism. Scott Sumner and Nick Rowe have already responded to many of them. Here I want to focus on what I view as one of their better criticisms: even if we are correct that monetary policy alone can end the slump, central banks have not shown themselves willing to do so. So why argue for them to do more? Here is Simon Wren-Lewis making this point:

MM agrees that fiscal stimulus will work unless it is actively counteracted by monetary policy. Nick says we can't always rely on fiscal policymakers being able and willing to do the right thing. But since at least 2011 we have not been able to rely on monetary policymakers in the Eurozone to do either the right thing, or consistently the wrong thing.

I think this is a fair point. The Fed failed to unload both barrels of its gun -- by signalling its monetary injections were to be temporary -- over the past five years while the ECB actually tightened monetary policy in 2011. Given this reality, the new keynesians want to know why not use fiscal policy? They contend that if monetary policy is too timid or tight, surely fiscal policy could make up for its shortcomings.

My view, and one that I believe is shared by most market monetarists, is that fiscal policy will not matter much as long as these two central banks are committed to their inflation targets. Any surge in aggregate demand created by fiscal policy would be sterilized by the central bank if it pushed inflation too high. And by all accounts both the Fed and ECB take their low inflation targets seriously.

In the case of the Fed, it seems to be aiming for core PCE inflation to fall between 1% and 2%. Any fiscal stimulus that pushed inflation outside this corridor would probably be offset. That is why I argued that had there been no American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 the Fed probably would have taken more expansionary steps back in 2009. It's also why the Fed offset the effects of fiscal austerity of 2013. The Fed, then, appears to be doing just enough to maintain its corridor inflation target, which is nowhere near enough to close the output gap. Fiscal policy is bound to be offset in such an environment.

So what is needed is a better way to do macroeconomic policy. One that would allow monetary policy to close the output gap and, in its absence, allow fiscal policy to do the same. I have a proposal that does just that. It is a two-tiered approach to NGDP level targeting:

First, the Fed adopts a NGDP level target. Doing so would better anchor nominal spending and income expectations and therefore minimize the chance of ever entering a liquidity-trap... [I]f the public believes the Fed will do whatever it takes to maintain a stable growth path for NGDP, then they would have no need to panic and hoard liquid assets in the first place when an adverse economic shock hits.

Second, the Fed and Treasury sign an agreement that should a liquidity trap emerge anyhow [say due to central bank incompetence] and knock NGDP off its targeted path, they would then quickly work together to implement a helicopter drop. The Fed would provide the funding and the Treasury Department would provide the logistical support to deliver the funds to households. Once NGDP returned to its targeted path the helicopter drop would end and the Fed would implement policy using normal open market operations. If the public understood this plan, it would further stabilize NGDP expectations and make it unlikely a helicopter drop would ever be needed.

The nice thing about this proposal is that it provides insurance against central bank incompetence. Scott Sumner initially did not like this proposal, but as he loves to say the fiscal multiplier is nothing more than an estimate of central bank incompetence. That is, the fiscal multiplier is large only when the central banks fail to properly stabilize aggregate demand. Helicopter drops are fiscal policy and in this proposal they would be applied only when the Fed failed to stabilize demand. Therefore, it is a perfect fit. Employ fiscal policy only when it packs a punch and do so in a manner to preserve a NGDP level target. This should make both market monetarists and new keynesians happy.

Note that this approach with its NGDP level targeting implies a commitment to permanent monetary injections, if needed. It, therefore, holds up against the critiques of helicopter drops that Paul Krugman, Scott Sumner, myself, and others have raised. It would also provide a more systematic approach to monetary policy, a big improvement over the current ad-hoc approach of the Federal Reserve. This increased certainty by itself would be a boon to the economy. Finally, it would eliminate the need for the politically-charged fiscal stimulus spending programs. There is much to like about this proposal on both the political left and right.