Monday, September 27, 2010

Inflation Above (Official) Target

Among its other benefits, a policy regime of inflation targeting, where a central bank has a clear primary focus of keeping inflation as close as possible to a certain level, has a pleasing clarity.  For example, the Bank of England Act of 1998 states:
In relation to monetary policy, the objectives of the Bank of England shall be –
(a) to maintain price stability, and
(b) subject to that, to support the economic policy of Her Majesty’s Government, including its objectives for growth and employment.  
Compared to the mushy "dual mandate" of the Federal Reserve Act,
The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy's long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.  
Matthew Yglesias finds the unambiguity of the Bank of England's regime refreshing:
The genius of this is that you now don’t need to have monetary policy matters be the subject of debates on op-ed pages and blogs with various board members giving interviews and speeches. If 2 percent inflation is too much inflation, well that’s on the heads of the politicians who set the target. If inflation is over 2 percent, then the Bank of England needs to tighten. And if inflation is below 2 percent, then the Bank of England needs to expand. Consequently, when faced with a giant downturn the Bank of England has had none of the self-induced paralysis of the Fed, the ECB, or the Bank of Japan. 
Yes, but... the Bank of England has been missing its target lately:
I think the BofE deserves great credit for being aggressive in its response to the economic crisis, but the inflation targeting regime forces it into making awkward excuses, like this from its inflation report:
CPI inflation remained well above the 2% target, elevated by temporary effects stemming from higher oil prices, the restoration of the standard rate of VAT to 17.5% and the past depreciation of sterling.  And the forthcoming increase in the standard rate of VAT to 20% will add to inflation throughout 2011.  As these effects wane, downward pressure on wages and prices from the persistent margin of spare capacity is likely to pull inflation below the target.  But the pace and extent of that moderation in inflation are impossible to predict precisely.  
The FT's Money Supply blog notes that the IMF approves of Britain's current loose monetary/tight fiscal policy mix (see also Free Exchange's comments).  But it is not clear that the inflation target has been helpful... indeed, the risk is that, by allowing inflation exceed the target, the Bank of England is damaging the "credibility" that inflation targeting was designed to buy.  Considering the circumstances, I'm inclined to believe that's a risk worth taking, it does raise questions about the whole inflation targeting concept. 

Inflation targeting is still relatively new. New Zealand was the first country to implement it, in 1988. The current global slump is inflation targeting's first real test, and, after the dust settles it will be interesting to evaluate how it performed.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Inflation Below (Unofficial) Target

In its Tuesday statement, the Federal Open Market Committee said that inflation is too low for its taste:
Measures of underlying inflation are currently at levels somewhat below those the Committee judges most consistent, over the longer run, with its mandate to promote maximum employment and price stability. With substantial resource slack continuing to restrain cost pressures and longer-term inflation expectations stable, inflation is likely to remain subdued for some time before rising to levels the Committee considers consistent with its mandate.  
Of course, we're used to central banks worrying about inflation becoming too high, so this is an unusual thing to see.  As Gavyn Davies writes:
The Federal Reserve broke a taboo yesterday when it said quite baldly that inflation in the US is now below the level “consistent with its mandate”. In other words, it is too low. This is a very big statement for any central banker to make, since the greatest feather in their collective cap is that they successfully combated inflation after the 1970s debacle. Led by the Fed’s Paul Volcker, they re-asserted the importance of monetary policy, after two decades of failed wage and price controls. Since that period, most central bankers have been careful to avoid any language which even hints that a rise in inflation is acceptable to them. I can certainly find no previous record of the FOMC saying that inflation is too low, so it was a jolt to see this stated so starkly in the Fed statement yesterday.  
Those who are still worrying about inflation, in spite of the data, are fighting the last war.  Fortunately, the Fed isn't interpreting the "price stability" part of its mandate to mean "zero inflation." The projection of board members' for inflation in the "longer run" can be taken as its unofficial target; as of the last release in June, they were aiming for expecting 1.7%-2.0% (as measured by the deflator for personal consumption expenditures). 

Both the consumer price index (red line) and core PCE deflator are consistent with the notion that the Fed is missing its target.

Moreover, the markets are skeptical that the Fed will hit it in the future, according to the Cleveland Fed:
The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reports that its latest estimate of 10-year expected inflation is 1.54 percent. In other words, the public currently expects the inflation rate to be less than 2 percent on average over the next decade.
Moreover, the Cleveland Fed's estimates are for CPI inflation, which is generally higher than PCE inflation.

The Fed didn't actually do anything about this, but the acknowledgment of the problem is a step in the right direction.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The NBER Calls It

Today's announcement from the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee:
[A] trough in business activity occurred in the U.S. economy in June 2009. The trough marks the end of the recession that began in December 2007 and the beginning of an expansion. The recession lasted 18 months, which makes it the longest of any recession since World War II. Previously the longest postwar recessions were those of 1973-75 and 1981-82, both of which lasted 16 months.

In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity. Rather, the committee determined only that the recession ended and a recovery began in that month. A recession is a period of falling economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. The trough marks the end of the declining phase and the start of the rising phase of the business cycle. Economic activity is typically below normal in the early stages of an expansion, and it sometimes remains so well into the expansion.

While this was the correct call in terms of consistency with their definition and past practice (and I thought they should have made it sooner), it highlights the limitations of the "recession"/"expansion" dichotomy in describing the state of the economy. As they were careful to note, the economy continues to operate substantially below capacity. The "expansion" state is about the rate of change, not the (still lousy) level; as the NBER's FAQ puts it:

Q: Isn't a recession a period of diminished economic activity?

A: It's more accurate to say that a recession—the way we use the word—is a period of diminishing activity rather than diminished activity.
So, since June, we've been in a period of non-diminishing activity. That's certainly better than continuing contraction, but growth has not been fast enough to make a substantial dent in unemployment.

In the chart below, the red line shows retail and food service sales, and the blue line is the industrial production index, both normalized to 100 at the Dec. 2007 peak. Both turn up around the end of 2009, but 14 months into the recovery, their levels remain below the previous peak. Employment (green line) continued to fall for several months after the end of the recession and has only improved slightly since.

The phrase "growth recession" describes this state of slow growth and non-declining unemployment, but its somewhat cumbersome. I've found myself using the word "slump" alot.

See also: Mark Thoma and Catherine Rampell (who talked to Robert Gordon).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Raising the Speed Limit

At Project Syndicate, Barry Eichengreen writes that one of the Great Depression's lessons is that slumps can be good for productivity growth:
Output expanded robustly after 1933. Between 1933 and 1937, the US economy grew by 8% a year. Between 1938 and 1941, growth averaged more than 10%.

Rapid output growth without equally rapid capital-stock or employment growth must have reflected rapid productivity growth. This is the paradox of the 1930’s. Despite being a period of chronic high unemployment, corporate bankruptcies, and continuing financial difficulties, the 1930’s recorded the fastest productivity growth of any decade in US history.

How could this be? As the economic historian Alexander Field has shown, many firms took the “down time” created by weak demand for their products to reorganize their operations. Factories that had previously used a single centralized power source installed more flexible small electric motors on the shop floor. Railways reorganized their operations to make more efficient use of both rolling stock and workers. More firms established modern personnel-management departments and in-house research labs.

There are hints of firms responding similarly now. General Motors, faced with an existential crisis, has sought to transform its business model. US airlines have used the lull in demand for their services to reorganize both their equipment and personnel, much like the railways in the 1930’s. Firms in both manufacturing and services are adopting new information technologies – today’s analog to small electric motors – to optimize supply chains and quality-management systems.

A similar argument has been made that extensive business restructuring around the time of the 2001 recession contributed to productivity growth in the following years.

Indeed, productivity growth recently has been quite strong:

(Business sector output per hour - Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Eichengreen goes on to argue that policy support is necessary:

But this positive productivity response is not guaranteed. Policymakers must encourage it. Small, innovative firms need enhanced access to credit. Firms need stronger tax incentives for R&D. Productivity growth can be boosted by public investment in infrastructure, as illustrated by the 1930’s examples of the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Which sounds alot like the Obama administration's recent initiatives to increase small-business credit, build more infrastructure and make the R&D tax deduction permanent. While a case can be made for the first two as short-run stimulus, the benefits of the research and development tax credit are almost entirely of the long run variety.

In the long run, higher productivity is good news: it means more output per worker and, therefore, higher average wages. However, it also means less employment is needed for any given level of output, which means the increase in unemployment during the recession was than the decline in output would normally imply (see this previous post).

By increasing potential output, ceteris paribus, productivity growth increases the distance between actual economic activity and the economy's capacity sometimes known as the "output gap." This suggests that even stronger demand growth is necessary to close the gap.

The resurgence of productivity growth in the mid-1990's is one of the factors that allowed the Fed to keep interest rates low and allow unemployment to fall to 4% without igniting inflation (whatever else we say about Alan Greenspan now, he deserves credit for recognizing this early on). If Eichengreen is correct, the "productivity boom-in-waiting" will raise the economy's speed limit, and this is one more reason for the Fed to step on it.

Friday, September 3, 2010


The August employment situation report from the BLS suggests an economy stuck in neutral - nonfarm payroll employment, calculated from a survey of businesses, fell by 54,000. If one removes the loss of 114,000 temporary census jobs, its a gain of 60,000, which is far short of the pace needed to make a dent in mass unemployment of nearly 15 million.

The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a survey of households, ticked up from 9.5% to 9.6%. While the number of people employed increased by 290,000, so did the number of unemployed, by 261,000, as 550,000 people entered the labor force, which is a modestly encouraging sign (the labor force participation rate rose slightly to 64.7%).
Note that those are all seasonally adjusted figures which correct for the drop in labor force participation which normally occurs in August - on an unadjusted basis, the numbers of people employed and unemployed both declined, with the unemployment rate falling from 9.7% to 9.5%. That is, the gain in (seasonally adjusted) labor force participation can be thought of as a gain relative to what normally happens this time of year.

For more, see David Leonhardt, Calculated Risk, Free Exchange, and Real Time Economics' round-up.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Free Silver Going Mainstream?

At Project Syndicate, Ken Rogoff says a little inflation might not be such a bad thing:
While America is facing the limits of fiscal policy, monetary policy can do more, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke detailed in a recent speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With credit markets impaired, the Fed could buy more government bonds or private-sector debt. Bernanke also noted the possibility of temporarily raising the Fed’s medium-term inflation target (a policy that I suggested in this column in December 2008).

Given the massive deleveraging of public- and private-sector debt that lies ahead, and my continuing cynicism about the US political and legal system’s capacity to facilitate workouts, two or three years of slightly elevated inflation strikes me as the best of many very bad options, and far preferable to deflation.
Two things:
  1. I don't agree that we're "facing the limits of fiscal policy" and, more importantly, the bond markets don't either - the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds is 2.58, indicating that if the US wants to borrow more, it will have no problem finding willing lenders. However, it does seem that our political system has reached the limit of what it is able to do.
  2. In last week's speech, Bernanke did "note the possibility" of raising the Fed's implicit inflation target, and then he went on to clearly rule it out (see previous post).
That said, having a heavyweight like Rogoff calling for more inflation lends the idea some respectability - a former chief economist of International Monetary Fund doesn't turn William Jennings Bryan-ish lightly. Moreover, Olivier Blanchard, who currently holds Rogoff's old post also has raised the idea, though for somewhat different reasons (as I discussed here).