Friday, December 11, 2009

The Limits of Monetary Policy (or, "Why DeLong, Krugman, Yglesias, and Sumner are Wrong")

For those of you not connected into the economics blogosphere, the Federal Reserve has been facing a tidal wave of criticism lately. There's the Ron Paul "end the Fed" crowd, of course, but there is also a rising tide of critics arguing that the Fed isn't doing nearly enough to solve the unemployment problem.

The criticism is logical enough: the Fed itself predicts extremely low inflation, with almost no inflationary pressure to speak of, combined with extremely high unemployment for several years to come. We're talking about a decade to get back to 5% unemployment, as I understand it. The Federal Reserve argues, however, that it's largely tapped out. It has lowered interest rates as far as it can and it doesn't have many tools left. Several commentators (from both sides of the aisle, but mostly from the left) are astounded:

To be fair, their incredulity is understandable. Bernanke himself is famous for promoting the idea of unconventional monetary policy and praising the "quantitative easing" that the Bank of Japan engaged in in the 1990s. Joe Gagnon, at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, has made waves by proposing exactly what Bernanke promoted back then - several trillion dollars worth of asset purchases to make monetary policy even more accomodating. Right now, with interest rates at 0%, there is no "traditional" way for the Fed to be more expansionary. Purchasing a ton of assets would pump more money into the economy by putting money into the hands of the current asset holders.

So I've thrown the critics several bones. I've said their criticism is "logical enough", and that their "incredulity is understandable". But ultimately, I think the relentless demand for Bernanke to engage in vigorous quantitative easing is highly misplaced. When the Fed lowers interest rates, lowers reserve requirements (requiring firms to hold less reserves allows them to expand credit more easily, which expands the money supply), or expands it's own balance sheet through normal open market operations, monetary policy keeps market distortions to a minimum. Everyone faces the same interest rate and everyone faces the same reserve requirements. Competition picks the winners, the Fed simply sets the macro-trajectory for the economy.

"Quantitative easing" is different; it involves an aggressive expansion of the Fed balance sheet by purchasing all sorts of assets (including government bonds). The problem with this is that the Fed ends up "picking winners". Specific market players get an artificial leg-up. These activities pose a serious risk of distorting market activity and market signals. As a rule of thumb, that's a very bad thing. In exceptional circumstances - such as a liquidity trap - it may be worth the risk.

But even if we determine that it is worth the risk in a liquidity trap, who should take that risk in a free society? I would argue that an elected, representative body should engage in those activities - not an appointed board of a central bank. If we're going to engaging in potentially distortionary measures, it needs to be done in the open, and people need to be accountable for these decisions. This is fundamentally what fiscal stimulus (i.e. - deficit spending from the government) does. It's an attempt to "soak up" the extra savings that are causing the economy to stall out, but it's an attempt that bears a real risk of "picking winners". What winners are Congress and the Obama administration picking? Infrastructure. Green jobs. Home-owners. Car buyers. Education. Some of these choices may be good, some may be bad. The point is "we the people" are making these choices, not a central bank.

I have a great deal of respect for the Fed, and I think they have a hugely important role to play in this crisis. I don't even begrudge Ben Bernanke the quantitative easing he's engaged in thus far as an extreme emergency measure. But to insist that this become the order of the day - that this is how we should wage an extended fight against depression - seems very dangerous to me. I do think the Fed is largely tapped out as far as what it can do - not because they can't do more, but because they shoudln't do more. It's time for Congress to step up.

Two additional thoughts:
(1.) Willem Buiter seems to agree with me. I ran across this after I formulated my thoughts (mostly in response to Yglesias's series of posts), but I'm happy to see he agrees with me, and
(2.) I have lots of lingering reservations about quantitative easing that I may comment on in the future. As a teaser, I'll just say it strikes me that quantitative easing risks prolonging a liquidity trap. The Fed is increasing the supply of loanable funds available to institutions that want to borrow, which should drive down the real interest rate - when what we want to do is drive it up (so that the interest rate floor is no longer binding). The only redeeming quality of quantitative easing, it seems to me, is that it may create inflation which would also make the nominal interest rate floor non-binding. I'm still noodling over this - but those are my initial thoughts. This seems to me to be a classic example of what Keynes meant when he said that Roosevelt's policies were like "a slim man trying to get fatter by buying a bigger belt".

1 comment:


    The blogosphere back-and-forth on this rages on.

    Sumner gets specific here (and it's relevant to me "additional thoughts") - for him, the purpose of unconventional monetary policy is most decisively to cause inflation (presumably to make the de facto nominal interest rate floor non-binding, although you never know with Sumner... sometimes it seems like he just wants steady nominal GDP growth, regardless of how it's apportioned between real growth and inflation).


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.