Count me among the skeptics who believe the Fed has pretty much already done all it can to pull the economy out of the deep hole that it’s in. Zero short-term interest rates, purchases of longer-term bonds to keep long-term rates at historic lows, backstopping various asset markets, emergency loans to banks, etc. It’s helped avert a Second Great Depression, which is nothing to sneeze at. Some economists who I usually agree with are convinced that aggressive new policies could pull us out of the current Little Depression, too. They’re smarter than I am, but they have yet to convince me that these policies could work.
The tonic du jour is nominal GDP targeting, by which the Fed would try to reach a certain level of nominal GDP — say, $16. 3 trillion (the current level of potential GDP assuming that, as I’ve read, current GDP is 7% below its potential. Do the math and that’s a $1.1 trillion gap between current and potential GDP). Christina Romer, Obama’s first head of the Council of Economic Advisors, recently backed this approach in a New York Times op-ed. Scott Sumner has been pushing it all along, and there’s now a whole new school of macroeconomics, “market monetarism,” which revolves around nominal GDP targeting. (Economists: see here for Ed Dolan’s helpful explanation of how nominal GDP targeting is a form of Milton Friedman-style monetarism.)
Now, once the Fed announces this new target, how does it actually get there? Romer provides the clearest answer I’ve seen yet:
‘Though announcing the new framework would help, it probably wouldn’t be enough to close the nominal G.D.P. gap anytime soon. The Fed would need to take additional steps. These might include further quantitative easing, more forceful promises about short-term interest rates, and perhaps moves to lower the exchange rate. . . .’
‘Nominal G.D.P. targeting would make it more likely that the Fed would take these aggressive actions.’
That’s clear, but so is weak tea. None of these actions sound all that different from what the Fed is already doing. Proponents of nominal GDP targeting seem to be counting on a huge “announcement effect,” i.e., that people will hear about the Fed’s commitment to raising GDP and will assume that Fed will make it happen. Yet the Fed’s goals already include maximum sustainable employment, which is the employment rate you’d have at potential GDP, so why should this change the public’s behavior? (Although there is a difference between monetary policy goals, like low unemployment, and targets, which now include interest rates, it’s a rather subtle one. I don’t see why it would move markets.)
Another popular tonic is a higher inflation target. Right now the Fed’s unofficial but almost universally acknowledged inflation target is 2%, and for the past few years the core inflation rate has been below or near 2%. When inflation is very low, real interest rates (nominal interest rates minus inflation) can still be high even when nominal rates are also low. In the U.S. in the early 1930s, for example, nominal rates plunged toward 0%, but deflation was raging, so real interest rates were actually quite high. Economic historian Nick Crafts, in a Financial Times op-ed, says that Britain’s recovery from the Great Depression was greatly aided by a combination of low nominal interest rates and rising inflation rates — i.e., negative real interest rates — which promoted homebuilding. Crafts says targeting a higher inflation rate — say, 4% — could do the trick today.
Again, I just don’t see how you get there. Would I like to see lower real interest rates? Sure. But for 4% inflation to happen, a lot of other things have to happen first. Banks need to loan out their excess reserves, people and businesses need to buy stuff with those loans, the money needs to be redeposited in banks, more loans need to be made, etc. That’s how monetary policy works — when it works. Right now, the banks have over a trillion dollars in excess reserves that they’re just sitting on. Banks are not eager to lend, and businesses and households are not eager to borrow. Classic liquidity trap.
Nominal GDP targeting and higher inflation targets sound radical, but are they? Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said in a speech this week that he viewed the 2% inflation target as a medium-run target, not a short-run target, saying that as long as inflation averaged out to 2% over a multi-year period, higher inflation rates would be acceptable in the short term. That statement is consistent with either a nominal GDP target (shoot for low inflation when real GDP is high, tolerate higher inflation when real GDP is low) or an inflation target (let inflation rise when unemployment is high), which suggests that neither of those policies is all that new. Both seem to promise much more than they could ever deliver.