The Fed’s complacency about its current toolbox is unwarranted: As I argued in the first blog in this series last week, I was disappointed in what came out of Jackson Hole for three reasons. The first reason, developed in that blog, was that the Fed should have signaled a desire to exceed its two percent inflation target during periods of protracted recovery and low unemployment and in this context to signal that a rate increase was off the table for September and quite likely the rest of the year. Friday’s employment report further strengthens the case for delay both by adding to the evidence on the absence of inflation pressures and by suggesting a less robust economy than most expected.
Even apart from the desirability of allowing inflation to rise above two percent in a happy economic scenario GDP, labor market and inflation expectations data all make a compelling case against a rate increase. Private sector GDP growth for the last year has averaged 1.3 percent a level that has since the 1960s always presaged recession. Total work hours have over the last 6 months grown at nearly their slowest rate since early 2010. And both market and survey measures of inflation expectations continue to decline.
My second reason for disappointment in Jackson Hole was that Chair Yellen, while very thoughtful and analytic, was too complacent to conclude that “even if average interest rates remain lower than in the past, I believe that monetary policy will, under most conditions, be able to respond effectively”. This statement may rank with Ben Bernanke’s unfortunate observation that subprime problems would be easily contained.
Rather I believe that countering the next recession is the major monetary policy challenge before the Fed. I have argued repeatedly that (i) it is more than 50 percent likely that we will have a recession in the next 3 years. (ii) countering recessions requires 400 or 500 basis points of monetary easing. (iii) we are very unlikely to have anything like that much room for easing when the next recession comes. ... [explains in detail] ...
On balance, I think the Fed’s complacency about its current toolbox is unwarranted. If I am wrong in either exaggerating the risks of recession or understating the efficacy of policy, the costs of taking out insurance against a recession that cannot be met with monetary policy are relatively low. If I my fears are justified, the costs of complacency could be very high. The right policy in the near term should be tilting as hard as possible against recession as argued in the first blog in this series. For the longer term the Fed will have to reconsider its broad policy approach. This will be subject of my next entry.