Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Romer: Bernanke's Volcker Moment?

In the Times last weekend, Christina Romer suggested a precedent for a switch in our monetary policy regime.  The Volcker Fed tightened money growth (thereby letting interest rates rise severely - the Fed funds rate was briefly above 19% at a couple of points in 1981) - the point was to bring the hammer down on inflation. As Romer notes, this very unpleasant policy was justified by a shift to a "monetarist" regime of targeting money growth.  As I've discussed before, I have mixed feelings about the lionization of Paul Volcker, but I think Romer has a good point that it may be time for another regime shift, this time to nominal GDP level targeting:
Mr. Bernanke needs to steal a page from the Volcker playbook. To forcefully tackle the unemployment problem, he needs to set a new policy framework — in this case, to begin targeting the path of nominal gross domestic product.
Nominal G.D.P. is just a technical term for the dollar value of everything we produce. It is total output (real G.D.P.) times the current prices we pay. Adopting this target would mean that the Fed is making a commitment to keep nominal G.D.P. on a sensible path. 
Just as Volcker's regime shift provided cover for a controversial action the Fed felt it needed to undertake (extreme tightening) and facilitated a shift in inflation expectations, a shift to a nominal GDP target would make possible (indeed, require) more aggressive expansion and thereby raise inflation expectations (which means lower real interest rates, ceteris paribus).

See also Paul Krugman, who agrees and Binyamin Appelbaum, who reports that the Fed is unmoved. Free Exchange's Greg Ip makes a contrary case and his colleague Ryan Avent responds.

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