Fed raising the stakes

On my blog, I have tended to focus on monetary policy issues. Indeed the previous post from February 2014 was ominously titled “The sum of all tightenings” (now that I just read it, it turned out not to be a completely bonkers story). Today, too, I will focus on monetary policy, albeit from a more theoretical standpoint.

A few years after the crisis, some economists were pondering the idea of raising the inflation target. Most famously, a paper by Olivier Blanchard from 2010 suggests that the CPI target should be moved from 2 to 4% (short summary here). There was also an interesting paper from Laurence Ball four years later advocating the same thing. I remember at the time that the idea was ridiculed by “street” economists and strategists with the reasoning going along the lines of “yeah right, you can’t even meet your current target so good luck with a higher one”. Even the policy heavyweights like Ben Bernanke dismissed the idea back then and we simply moved on.

Those of you who follow the markets will be aware that last week Janet Yellen somewhat surprisingly said that the question of raising the inflation target is critical (a nice FT story here). Again, the idea was quickly dismissed, eg by Martin Wolf. In fact, I chuckled to see this familiar argument from the FT View, which entirely misses the point. Again.

But the Fed should not be distracted from the theoretical benefits of changing the goal while it has consistently failed to reach the current one.

In fact, before going into the crux of my argument let’s sort out this flawed observation of missing the inflation target. Below is the chart of the core CPI and PCE in the US in the last five years:

fredgraph (1)

The core PCE has fluctuated around 1.5% and core CPI, while more volatile, has been around 2% for most of the time (except 2015). If someone thinks that from the economic agents’ point of view this is sufficiently far from the target to warrant making fun of the monetary authority then they are mistaken (and that would hold even if we weren’t exiting from the biggest forced deleveraging of a generation). For the purposes of this post, I will therefore assume that the Fed has been fairly close to its inflation target and it has certainly not been a failure of the policy. If you disagree with this, you might as well stop reading. Also, please bear in mind that this argument is about the Fed and the Fed only (not the ECB or the BoJ, whose inflation credentials are considerably worse).

Back to the main story, though. Former Governor of the National Bank of Poland Marek Belka was asked several years ago during a meeting with investors in London whether he thought it made sense to lower the inflation target in order to adjust to ever-low inflation prints. He seemed shocked at the suggestion and replied asking why anyone would want a tighter monetary policy at this juncture? Most people in the room didn’t get his point so he went on explaining that lowering inflation target by 1pp is tantamount to a promise that real rates would be durably higher by this amount. In other words, the central bank would have to hike interest rates faster than otherwise. Seems simple but for many this still isn’t straightforward. For some reason, the discussion didn’t move to raising inflation target back then.

Assuming the Fed is a credible central bank (and if it isn’t then I am not sure which one is…), there is a possibility that the inflation target gets moved to 4%. In the short to medium term it would be similar to letting inflation run a little bit hot after years of low growth, which the Fed wants to allow anyway but in the long run it would be a significant change. This would mean that the Fed commits to not tightening monetary policy as aggressively as it otherwise would. Would people believe it? Sure they would!

Now, the problem these days is reflexivity of markets. For example, Fed hikes interest rates, dollar strengthens, Fed needs to refrain from hiking. All this sometimes happens at a breath-taking pace. Also, we must not forget the Fed’s dual mandate, given that we seem to be at full employment. Therefore, it is safe to assume at the moment that the Fed will continue chugging along with rate hikes for the foreseeable future. Slowly but surely.

There is a significant problem here, which the Fed seems to have identified (judging by recent comments from Dudley) – so far the slow and predictable pace of hiking interest rates has not led to any significant tightening of monetary conditions as stocks continued rallying, spreads tightened and the curve flattened. This very much resembles the pre-crisis Greenspan’s conundrum era. The Fed hikes but the market eases thus leading to significant build-up in leverage until things go really ugly. So hiking rates, while appropriate, may prove deathly in the long run given how vast the financial markets have become.

What if we raise the inflation target simultaneously then? As mentioned above, this gives the signal to people that the Fed won’t be hiking rates as fast as it otherwise would. That said, given where monetary conditions are, some additional rate hikes would still be likely. So far it sounds similar to what we have had to date. But the important distinction is that – taking Fed’s credibility for granted – markets would need to start pricing in more inflation premium to the long end of the curve. This would offset the dreaded flattening pressure, which has made people so worried lately. Note that if the curve isn’t flattening then (among others):

  • the appreciating pressure on the USD is smaller than otherwise;
  • investors are not pushed out of fixed income assets into riskier investments (see insurance companies);
  • the banking sector stays buoyant.

Finally, imagine that these two forces, ie rate hikes and an increased inflation target get supplemented by offloading of the balance sheet. What the Fed would then achieve would be bearish steepening of the curve, which in my opinion is the necessary condition for us to finally move on from the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. And if that happens, discussions about the US fiscal stimulus and tax cuts would probably be met by questions like “Donald who?!?” or “Who cares?”. This is because the economic impact of gradual bear steepening of the curve driven by a higher inflation target would trump (sic!) everything else.

*It’s been more than three years since I last posted. I don’t suppose it will take me another three years to write the next one but one should not assume that hereby the regular service resumes.

**I do realise that I made some short-cuts in reasoning above but this is a blog post from an anonymous bloke who sits in Warsaw and comments on the Fed policy, rather than a peer-reviewed paper in Journal of Applied Economics 🙂

6 thoughts on “Fed raising the stakes

  1. How would a rise in the inflation target be compatible with further hikes? Wouldn’t it be easier just to unwind the Fed balance sheet, leaving everything else unchanged?

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. You are correct that leaving things as they are is easier. My point was more of a thought experiment and the only way you can reconcile hiking rates with a higher PCE target is to use the dual mandate argument (ie we are close to full employment). I do appreciate it is a bit convoluted, though.

  2. Why do you believe appreciation pressure on USD would be smaller in case of raising the Fed’s inflation target?

    • Because raising the inflation target is a promise to keep real rates lower than otherwise for an extended period. Secondly, if I am right about the curve steepening then it should also relieve the pressure on the USD (flat curves tend to strengthen the currencies). Thanks for you question 🙂

  3. Thanks Barnejek for writing this. Been a big fan of your work since discovering your blog last year and now follow you on twitter as well.

    I get the sense that core inflation could be structurally lower than in previous years due to technological change, globalisation and lower commodity prices. Lower inflation is linked with lower wages because workers theoretically would only demand higher wages if there is a real income squeeze. If this is so, then actual inflation can only be temporarily buoyed up, and inflation expectations will eventually adjust to a lower level. Lower actual and realised inflation over time would eventually lower the neutral fed funds rate, which implies that there will never be “normalization” and that really scares the Fed I think, because it reduces their available toolset to complete their dual mandate. This is the dreaded “policy mistake” scenario I think. Bad for the Fed and bad for all of us.

    Not critiquing your argument, just offering a view on the credibility assumption. Fully agree that if we hold that constant then your views make complete sense to me, and is a way out for them to “normalize” policy whilst still keeping financial conditions decent.

    • hi Michael, thanks very much for your kind words. as mentioned in other comments, this is merely a thought experiment, which might work imo under a certain set of assumptions.

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