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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tyler Cowen: Can the Fed Offer a Reason to Cheer?

Tyler Cowen hopes to convince you that you need to be convinced:

Can the Fed Offer a Reason to Cheer?, by Tyler Cowen, Commentary, NY Times: ...Optimism, or lack thereof, may seem the province of psychology, not macroeconomics. But ... a deficit of optimism has much to do with why the United States economy remains stalled today.
The Federal Reserve, pondering what to do to stimulate the economy, has a number of tools at its disposal. But if it could just convince Americans that it was committed to monetary expansion and economic growth, it would help the economy pick up speed.
Yet that is easier said than done. ... If the Fed promises to keep increasing the money supply until prices rise by, say, 3 percent a year, people should eventually start spending. Otherwise, if they just held the money, it would be worth 3 percent less each year. ... Of course, if no one believes the Fed’s commitment to price inflation, spending and employment will not go up. The plan will fail, and people will view their skepticism as vindicated.
In other words, one of our economic problems can be solved, but only if we are willing to believe it can. ... Sadly, although Mr. Bernanke clearly understands the problem, the Fed hasn’t been acting with much conviction. This is understandable, because if the Fed announces a commitment to a higher inflation target but fails to establish its credibility, it will have shown impotence. It would be a long time before the Fed was trusted again, and the Fed might even lose its (partial) political independence. ...
The Fed lost some of its political independence during the financial crisis. It undertook major rescue operations in conjunction with the Treasury, and these bailouts proved extremely unpopular. ... When it comes to inflation, the Fed cannot easily turn to Congress and simply ask to be trusted.
This is the sad side story of our financial crisis: especially when it comes to financial matters, a great deal of trust has been lost. There is the prospect of a free lunch right before us, yet it is unclear that we will be able to grab it. ...
In failing to push harder for monetary expansion, is Mr. Bernanke a wise and prudent guardian of the limited discretionary powers of the Fed? Or is he acting like a too-hesitant bureaucrat, afraid to fail and take the blame when he should be gunning for success?
We still don’t know which narrative is more accurate, but the Fed is not receiving enough signals of support from Congress.
As high unemployment continues, more and more people, including top economists, are asking the Fed to promise a credible commitment to a more expansionary monetary policy. This approach will work only if the Fed finds a way to be bold — and if we find a way to believe in it.

This reminds me of an argument I made in June:

As for Tyler's (and others') call for monetary policy instead of fiscal policy, here's the problem. It relies upon changing expectations of future inflation (which changes the real interest rate). You have to get people to believe that the Fed will actually be willing to create inflation in the future when it comes time to do so. However, it's unlikely that it will be optimal for the Fed to cause inflation when the time comes. Because of that, the best policy is to promise that you'll create inflation, then renege on the promise when it comes time to follow through. Since people know that, and expect the Fed will not actually carry through, it's hard to get them to change their expectations now. All that credibility the Fed has built up and protected concerning their inflation fighting credentials works against them here.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 12:48 AM in Economics, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink  Comments (50)


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