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"Should the Fed stick with the 2 percent inflation target or rethink it?" This was the very good question posed in a special conference hosted by the Brookings Institution this past January. Over the course of roughly two decades prior to the global financial crisis, a consensus had formed among monetary-policy experts and practitioners the world over that something like 2 percent is an appropriate goal—maybe even the optimal goal—for central banks to pursue. So why reconsider that target now?
The answer to that question starts with another consensus that has emerged in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In particular, there is now a widespread belief that, once monetary policy has fully normalized, the federal funds rate—the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) reference policy rate—will settle significantly below historical norms.
Several of my colleagues have spoken cogently about this phenomenon, which is often cast in terms of concepts like r-star, the natural rate of interest, the equilibrium rate of interest, or (in the case of my colleague Jim Bullard ), r-dagger. I like to think in terms of the "neutral" rate of interest; that is, the level of the policy rate consistent with the FOMC meeting its longer-run goals of price stability and maximum sustainable growth. In other words, the level of the federal funds rate should be consistent with 2 percent inflation, the unemployment rate at its sustainable level, and real gross domestic product at its potential.
Estimates of the neutral policy rate are subject to imprecision and debate. But a reasonable notion can be gleaned from the range of projections for the long-run federal funds rate reported in the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) released just after last week's FOMC meeting. According to the latest SEP, neutral would be in a range 2.3 to 3.0 percent.
For some historical context, in the latter half of the 1990s, as the 2 percent inflation consensus was solidifying, the neutral federal funds rate would have been pegged in a range of something like 4.0 to 5.0 percent, roughly 2 percentage points higher than the range considered to be neutral today.
The implication for monetary policy is clear. If interest rates settle at levels that are historically low, policymakers will have limited scope for cutting rates in the event of a significant economic downturn (or at least more limited scope than they had in the past). I think it's fair to say that even relatively modest downturns are likely to yield policy reactions that drive the federal funds rate to zero, as happened in the Great Recession.
My view is that the nontraditional tools deployed after December 2008, when the federal funds rate effectively fell to zero, were effective. But it is accurate to say that our experience with these tools is limited, and the effectiveness of those tools remains controversial. I join the opinion that, all else equal, it would be vastly preferable to conduct monetary policy through the time-tested approach of raising and lowering short-term policy rates, if such an approach is available.
This point is where the challenge to the 2 percent inflation target enters the picture. The neutral rate I have been describing is a nominal rate. It is roughly the sum of an inflation-adjusted real rate—determined by fundamental saving and investment decisions in the global economy—and the rate of inflation. The downward drift in the neutral rate I have been describing is attributable to a downward drift in the inflation-adjusted real rate. A great deal of research has documented this phenomenon, such as some influential research by San Francisco Fed president John Williams and Thomas Laubach, the head of the monetary division at the Fed's Board of Governors.
In the long run, a central bank cannot reliably control the real rate of interest. So if we accept the following premises...
- A neutral rate that is too low to give the central bank enough room to fight even run-of-the-mill downturns is problematic;
- Cutting rates is the optimal strategy for addressing downturns; and
- The real interest rate is beyond the control of the central bank in the long run
...then we must necessarily accept that raising the neutral rate, thus affording monetary policymakers the desired rate-cutting scope when needed, would require raising the long-run inflation rate. Hence the argument for rethinking the Fed's 2 percent inflation target.
But is that the only option? And is it the best option?
The answer to the first question is clearly no. The purpose of the Brookings Institution sessions is addressing the pros and cons of the different strategies for dealing with the low neutral rate problem, and I commend them to you. But in upcoming macroblog posts, I want to share some of my thoughts on the second question.
Tomorrow, I will review some of the proposed options and explain why I am attracted to one in particular: price-level targeting. On Wednesday, I will propose what I think is a potentially useful model for implementing a price-level targeting scheme in practice. I want to emphasize that these are preliminary thoughts, offered in the spirit of stimulating the conversation and debate. I welcome that conversation and debate and look forward to making my contribution to moving it forward.