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The lesson monetary policy needs to learn

It seemed obvious to write a post about the Peterson Institute’s recent conference on ‘Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy’, but nowadays I find it more efficient to let Martin Sandbu do the job. We agree most of the time, and he does these things better than I do. It allows me to write something only in the unlikely event that I disagree, or if I want to take the discussion further.

I only have one quibble with Martin’s columnyesterday. I think Bernanke’s suggestion that following a large recession (where interest rates hit their lower bound) central banks revert to a temporary price level target is rather more than the tweak he suggests. In addition, as Tony Yates pointed out, level of NGDP targets do not resolve the asymmetry problem that Bernanke’s suggestion is designed to address.

I also thought I could illustrate Martin’s final point that “admitting one has got things badly wrong is a prerequisite for doing better” by looking at some numbers. If we look at consumer prices, average inflation between 2009 and 2016 was 1.1% in the Euro area, 1.4% in the US and 2.2% in the UK. The UK was a failure too: average consumer price inflation should have been higher than 2.2%, because we had a large VAT hike and depreciation that monetary policy rightly saw through. If we look at GDP deflators we get a clearer picture, with 1.0%, 1.5% and 1.6% for the EZ, US and UK respectively.

You might think errors of that size are not too bad, and anyway what is wrong with inflation being too low. You would be wrong because in a recovery period these errors represent lost resources that, as the Phillips curve appears to be currently so flat, could be considerable. Or in other words the recovery could have been a lot faster, and interest rates could now be well off the lower bound everywhere, if policy had been more expansionary.

What I really wanted to add to Martin’s discussion was to suggest the main problem with monetary policy over this period, particularly in the UK and the Eurozone. It is not, in my view, the failure to adopt a levels target, or even the ECB raising rates in 2011 (although that was a serious and costly mistake). In 2009, when central banks would have liked to stimulate further but felt that interest rates were at their lower bound, they should have issued a statement that went something like this:
“We have lost our main instrument for controlling the economy. There are other instruments we could use, but their impact is largely unknown, so they are completely unreliable. There is a much superior way of stimulating the economy in this situation, and that is fiscal policy, but of course it remains the government’s prerogative whether it wishes to use that instrument. Until we think the economy has recovered sufficiently to raise interest rates, the economy is no longer under our control.”

I am not suggesting QE did not have a significant positive impact on the economy. But its use allowed governments to imagine that ending the recession was not their responsibility, and that what I callthe Consensus Assignment was still working. It was not: QE was one of the most unreliable policy instruments imaginable.

The criticism that this would involve the central bank exceeding its remit and telling politicians what to do is misplaced. Members of the ECB spent much of the time telling politicians the opposite, Mervyn King did the same in a more discreet way, while Ben Bernanke eventually said in essence something milder than the above. Under the Consensus Assignment we have invested central banks with the task of managing the economy because we think interest rates are a better tool than fiscal policy. As such it is beholden on them to tell us when they can no longer do the job better than government.

A better criticism is that a statement of that kind would not have made any difference, and we could spend hours discussing that. But this is about the future, and who knows what the political circumstances will be then. It is important that governments acknowledge that the Consensus Assignment no longer works if central banks believe there is a lower bound for interest rates, and this has to start by central banks admitting this. Economists like Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and myself have been saying these things for so long and so often, but I think central banks still have problems fully accepting what this means for them.       

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