Thursday, April 1, 2010

Volcker Revisited

As bad as its been, it doesn't look like the current slump will match the postwar peak in the unemployment rate, 10.8% at the end of 1982. That recession was largely a result of the Volcker Fed's efforts to reduce inflation, which was quite painful - exactly as the Phillips curve implies. Since Paul Volcker seems to be back in vogue, Free Exchange asks a very good question:
The Fed began raising interest rates in 1977, and the American economy tipped into recession in 1980, at which point the central bank took its foot off the brakes. But inflation rates continued to rise, and so shortly after the economy recovered (briefly) in July of 1980, Mr Volcker orchestrated a series of interest rate increases that took the federal funds target from around 10% to near 20%.

What followed was an extraordinarily painful recession. Unemployment rose to near 11%. Manufacturing states were battered by the downturn; the near 17% unemployment rate in Michigan was worse than the state sustained in this latest recession. Mortgage lenders were devastated by high interest rates. The banking system was pushed to the point of insolvency. Things were quite bad. And while growth snapped back to trend rather quickly after the Fed took its foot offf the brake for good, there was considerable suffering through the recession, and the effects of unemployment, on health and earnings of sacked workers, persisted for years.

And yet, Mr Volcker is widely hailed as a hero for his total victory over inflation. This is understandable; inflation can be an extremely unpleasant phenomenon. It distorts consumption and investment decisions, and erodes faith in markets and government. But I found myself wondering yesterday whether the Volcker Recession was, after all, worth the pain. Was it a good decision to send the American economy into a debilitating recession for three years in order to whip inflation?

Their answer is worth reading. It leans heavily on the "supply shock" interpretation of the 1970s stagflation, suggesting that, in the absence of further oil shocks in the 1980s, inflation would have gotten at least somewhat better on its own. Hardcore believers in Milton Friedman's dictum that "inflation is always, everywhere a monetary phenomenon" would beg to differ.

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