Marginal Notes On Janet Yellen's Footnote 14

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Includes: RINF
by: Brad DeLong

Over at Equitable Growth: The answer to the last point Janet Yellen makes in her famous Footnote 14 is:

  • If it's indeed the case that targeting an inflation rate of 4%/year "stretch[es] the meaning of 'stable prices' in the Federal Reserve Act," then targeting an inflation rate of 2%/year does not stretch the meaning of but rather eliminates the "maximum employment" objective in the Federal Reserve Act. Congress has left the Federal Reserve freedom to deal as best as it can with an imperfect world in which all of the statutory objectives cannot be achieved perfectly. It is the Fed's choice how to balance. READ MOAR

The answers to her other points are:

  • If it is indeed that case that "changing the FOMC's long-run inflation objective would risk calling into question the FOMC's commitment to stabilizing inflation at any level..." failing to change does not risk but does call into question the FOMC's commitment to maximum employment and to financial stability as well.

  • If it is indeed that case that "it is not obvious that a modestly higher target rate of inflation would have greatly increased the Federal Reserve's ability to support real activity..." it is still the case that a higher inflation target allows the Federal Reserve to achieve the same degree of monetary ease measured in terms of real interest rates without putting nearly as much adverse and unfortunate pressure on the commercial banking system's finances. A Federal Reserve that seeks - as it should - to both use monetary policy to support increased real activity as well as avoid putting undue destructive pressure on the commercial banking sector should welcome the additional sea room provided by a higher inflation target, even if the benefits from lower real interest rates in terms of supporting real activity are only modest.

  • If it is indeed the case that the Federal Reserve is confident that it can "use large-scale asset purchases and other unconventional tools to mitigate the costs arising from the ELB constraint..." the Federal Reserve is unique in being the only organization of economists that possesses such confidence.

  • And, last, it is indeed the case that the "earlier analyses of ELB costs" that underpinned the decision to adopt 2%/year as an inflation target "significantly underestimated the likelihood of severe recessions and slow recoveries of the sort recently experienced..." A policy choice substantially based on the wrong assumptions is highly likely to be exchanged at some point for one based on the right assumptions. And the sooner the shift is made, the better - both in terms of avoiding the costs of having bad policy, and avoiding the costs of uncertainty and lack of credibility generated by claiming a credible commitment to permanently pursue a not-very-credible policy.

Janet Yellen: Footnote 14: "Blanchard, Dell'Ariccia and Mauro (2010), among others...

...have recently suggested that central banks should consider raising their inflation targets, on the grounds that conditions since the financial crisis have demonstrated that monetary policy is more constrained by the effective lower bound (ELB) on nominal interest rates than was originally estimated. Ball (2013), for example, has proposed 4 percent as a more appropriate target for the FOMC. While it is certainly true that earlier analyses of ELB costs significantly underestimated the likelihood of severe recessions and slow recoveries of the sort recently experienced in the United States and elsewhere (see Chung and others, 2012), it is also the case that these analyses did not take into account central banks' ability to use large-scale asset purchases and other unconventional tools to mitigate the costs arising from the ELB constraint.

In addition, it is not obvious that a modestly higher target rate of inflation would have greatly increased the Federal Reserve's ability to support real activity in the special conditions that prevailed in the wake of the financial crisis, when some of the channels through which lower interest rates stimulate aggregate spending, such as housing construction, were probably attenuated. Beyond these tactical considerations, however, changing the FOMC's long-run inflation objective would risk calling into question the FOMC's commitment to stabilizing inflation at any level because it might lead people to suspect that the target could be changed opportunistically in the future. If so, then the key benefits of stable inflation expectations discussed below--an increased ability of monetary policy to fight economic downturns without sacrificing price stability--might be lost.

Moreover, if the purpose of a higher inflation target is to increase the ability of central banks to deal with the severe recessions that follow financial crises, then a better strategic approach might be to rely on more vigorous supervisory and macroprudential policies to reduce the likelihood of such events. Finally, targeting inflation in the vicinity of 4 percent or higher would stretch the meaning of 'stable prices' in the Federal Reserve Act...