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Monday, June 22, 2009

Mishkin: How to Get the Fed Out of Its 'Box'

Frederic Mishkin is worried about the long-run budget and how it constrains what the Fed can do:

How to Get The Fed Out Of Its 'Box', by Frederic Mishkin, Commentary, WSJ: When the Federal Open Market Committee meets this Tuesday and Wednesday, the Federal Reserve will face a serious dilemma.

Since the last committee meeting six weeks ago, the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield has risen by around ... 0.70%,... the interest rate on 30-year mortgages has risen by a similar amount. The rise in long-term interest rates ... has the potential to choke off economic recovery and lead to further deterioration in the housing market. ... Does the situation call for the Fed to expand its purchases of Treasury bonds to lower long-term interest rates?

To answer this question, we need to look at why long-term interest rates have risen. Here, there is good news and bad news. One cause ... is the more positive economic news..., particularly in financial markets. The bad news is ... the deteriorating fiscal situation, with massive budget deficits expected for the indefinite future. ...

Although an expansion of Treasury bond purchases by the Fed would have the benefit of lowering long-term interest rates temporarily to stimulate the economy, in the current environment it could be dangerous for two reasons. First, it might suggest that the Fed is willing to monetize Treasury debt. The Fed does not, and should not, ... be an enabler of fiscal irresponsibility. Second, if the Fed loses its credibility to resist pressures to monetize the debt it could cause inflation expectations to shift upward, thereby leading to a serious problem down the road.

The Fed is boxed in. The slack in the economy that is likely to persist for a very long time suggests the need for stimulative monetary policy... The fiscal situation argues against this policy action, because it would weaken the Fed's inflation-fighting credibility.

How can the Fed get out of the box and pursue the expansionary monetary policy that is needed...? The answer is that the Obama administration and Congress have to get serious about long-run fiscal sustainability. Large budget deficits naturally occur during severe recessions..., fiscal stimulus to promote economic recovery ... in a severe recession is a sensible prescription.

However, the failure to take steps to get future budgets under control is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it make it difficult for the Fed..., but it may even make the fiscal stimulus package less effective. After all, if you know that the government is issuing a lot of debt ... you can expect to pay much higher taxes in the future. With the prospect of higher taxes, you will be less likely to spend today.

How can the Obama administration and Congress help the Fed do its job and help the fiscal stimulus package work? It needs to address exploding spending on entitlements -- Social Security and particularly Medicare -- which are causing future deficit projections to be so bleak.

One possibility is to establish a nonpartisan commission on entitlement reform, along the lines of the National Commission on Social Security in the early 1980s. ... Another is taxing health-care benefits as part of any package to reform health care. Taxing health-care benefits would ... generate large amounts of revenue. It would also increase the incentive for people to lower the costs of their health care. There are surely many other ways to promote more fiscal responsibility.

The Fed can assist this process. It could indicate that implementing measures that would promote fiscal sustainability will be rewarded with Federal Reserve actions to bring long-term Treasury rates down. Deals like this have been successfully made in the past. In the current extremely difficult economic environment, we surely need such a deal now.

As has been pointed out here many times, the inflation and interest rate concerns are likely overblown, as is the worry that consumption will suffer significantly due to the expectation of taxes in the future, and hence the motivation to attack entitlements is not as strong as suggested. Also, there is also at least some question about the Fed's ability to control long-term interest rates.

But beyond that the projected increase in health care costs is the biggest problem with the long-run budget by far, and the Obama administration is trying to reform the health care system. So the administration is attempting to "address exploding spending on entitlements," at least the one that is actually exploding - there's no sense in which the projected increase in the deficit due to Social Security can be described as "exploding" - and if the Fed, Mishkin, or anyone else wants to assist with that effort with deals or op-eds that promote the necessary reform, I'm sure the administration would welcome their help.

    Posted by on Monday, June 22, 2009 at 12:12 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Fiscal Policy, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (25)


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