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U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass) Tuesday introduced a bill that would let interest rates be set only by Federal Reserve officials picked by the government, a new attempt to move power away from regional Fed officials chosen by the private sector.
The bill would remove from the 12-member policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee the five members who represent regional Fed banks. Only the seven-member board in Washington, which currently has two vacant seats, would get to vote on interest rates. The congressman said this would make the Fed more democratic and increase “transparency and accountability on the FOMC” by eliminating those officials who are effectively picked by business executives
Now, I have never been a fan of Barney Frank, but I do see merits in this legislation. However, first a contrary opinion, courtesy of Mark Thoma:
I can support – and have advocated — reforming the way in which regional bank presidents are selected. But this proposal, which removes geographical representation even though recessions do not hit each area of the country equally, is a bad idea (the Board of Governors can already veto the appointment of a regional bank president, though I don’t know of any instances where this power has been used). It takes us further away from the populist roots of the Fed’s structure, a structure that tried hard to represent all interests in policy. It also furthers the concentration of power in Washington that has been occurring slowly but surely ever since the Bank Reform Acts in the wake of the recession established the Fed’s current structure. In addition, it takes another step toward increasing the power of Congress over day to day monetary policy…I hate to even imagine how bad things would be if Congress had been in charge of monetary policy.
…reform the selection process for regional bank presidents, but don’t increase the concentration of power in Washington…I would like to see, at a minimum, less representation of business so that the public interest generally can take center stage.
While I can stand broadly stand behind the anti-concentration of power sentiment, if you have regions of a country which fluctuate so wildly from baseline that their performance creates a necessity for special accommodation from monetary policy in general, that is an OCA argument against having a single currency area. David Beckworth has argued that the “rust belt” in the US could have possibly benefited from its own currency over the last decade, and I agree!
Do we need regional Fed presidents at the table? After all, in the Great Contraction of 2008, and the ensuing recession, it has been the regional presidents that have provided the voice of hawkishness, even through tumultuous 2009! So when the chips are down, and adequate monetary policymaking is at its highest stakes, these guys were wrong…and being that they largely represent banking interests, they are likely biased against inflation at all costs. This certainly hasn’t been any help to our recovery!
Thoma is worried about Congressional power eroding sound monetary policy decision-making…but our current Fed structure doesn’t prevent that, indeed, it probably enhances it!* After all, Bernanke held the first press conference amid rising populist fears stoking an encroaching Congress’ ire regarding monetary policy. When Mark hopes that public interest would take center stage — and I do as well — but I don’t see how reforming the Fed presidents’ selection process is superior to having a board that is wholly selected by the President, and approved by Congress. If you want to do 12 members that way, so be it!
However, while Barney Frank’s motivation is mostly suspect, sometimes even then you stumble upon a good idea…but this idea isn’t good enough. If you are in a position where your legislation has little chance of making it out of committee, my play would be to lay all of my cards on the table: rewrite the Fed charter such that it requires the Fed to set one nominal target, and keep it on a level growth path. I would prefer NGDP, as I believe that targeting nominal spending is far superior to targeting inflation. This is obviously not Frank’s goal, and it would likely go against Franks (poor) instincts as it removes the unemployment portion of the mandate…but the level of employment in an economy is a real variable.
So what if trend NGDP was perfectly on target, but unemployment remained uncomfortably high. Is that a reason for monetary policy to act? Well, it could be…but there are other questions to ask of other policymakers. What are the structural problems? If there are supply side rigidities, look at removing them (not just removing specific laws, but increasing education, etc.). If you are uncomfortable with removing them, then live with higher joblessness. If there happened to have been an extremely productivity-enhancing technological development (like mass teleportation?) that is causing persistent unemployment because it significantly increases the return on capital investment vs labor investment, then perhaps the long-run growth potential of the economy has been increased — if that is the case, monetary policy may need to target a higher growth path for NGDP.
So, to sum it up, I think removing regional Presidents does make the board more accountable, and it would probably also improve the decision-making process. And if you really wanted to reform the Fed with an eye toward independence, remove the dual mandate and institute a explicit nominal target.
*Imagine a Congressional hearing under an NGDP targeting rule. What would it consist of?
Congressman: “Is NGDP on target”?
Fed Chair: “Yeop”.
Congressman: “Lets get lunch”.
That is obviously a joke, but it is the wiggle room created by the confusing dual mandate that allows Congress to leverage nearly all of its power against the bank.
A simple rule of thumb that summarizes the Fed’s policy response over the past two decades recommends lowering the federal funds rate by 1.4 percentage points if inflation falls by 1 percentage point and by 1.8 percentage points if the unemployment rate rises by 1 percentage point. Either headline inflation or core inflation can be used with this rule to construct policy recommendations. Relative to a core inflation formulation, a policy rule using headline inflation would have called for a higher fed funds rate in 2005-2006 before the recession and in 2008 in the midst of a deepening recession. Currently, both formulations call for substantial monetary accommodation.
The Fed, in it’s October meeting (after Lehman had failed on Sept. 16th) lowered their target fed funds rate only 50 basis points to 1.50. That week (Dec. 6th-10th), the DJIA fell 18%, but it wasn’t until Oct. 29th that the Fed met hastily in an emergency meeting to cut rates…50 basis points, to 1.00. What metric could they have been watching that would suggest (in a historical sense) that inflation was the problem, and not deflation? It could only have been headline inflation!
Core inflation has closely tracked a median ever since the Fed concerned itself with keeping inflation low (and stable). But what you really have to ask yourself is; what good is having a target when you are able to move between whatever measure suits your inclination at the moment? There is, of course, a mechanism by which inflation in energy prices (and thus broad inputs) can translate into a higher trend in core inflation (60’s-80’s), but this hasn’t been the case for thirty years.
The key here is that monetary policy should not be engaged in inflation targeting. Inflation is a symptom of an underlying problem (AD or AS shock), for which the Fed can only react to AD. If the Fed concerns itself with reacting to AS shocks, then we end up where we were in late 2008, with plummeting NGDP. The Fed should target the variable that it has control over, and keep it growing at a stable long-run rate.
Update: Accidentally hit the “Publish” button instead of preview. In any case, the SF Fed’s forecast is that the rise in commodity prices is unsustainable given the level of depressed aggregate demand in much of the world economy. Here is the chart:
The SF Fed also predicts a persistent (and rather large) output gap through 2012! That is a monumental failure of monetary policy.
I’m a tad bit late on commenting on the tax compromised reached between the White House and Republicans, but I think that there has been some fairly high-quality commentary around the blogosphere. I stand mostly with the reasonable left in supporting what was put into the package, even though we got the wrong payroll tax cut, and a strange and potentially politically deadly compromise on the Estate tax (which I otherwise oppose, but wouldn’t let my positing get in the way of providing economic stimulus, like some on the left).
Mark Thoma worries that the payroll tax cut will become permanent (edit: found the link). This is the mirror of the argument that government spending tends to become permanent, as well…which I have an inkling that Mark doesn’t mind that feature so much.
I think Kevin Drum misses a grand opportunity to call out to the left to articulate a better way forward here:
In the end, this is the second stimulus we all wanted. It’s not a very efficient stimulus, and it sadly caves into the conservative snake oil that the sum total of fiscal policy is tax cuts, but them’s the breaks. Anyone who doesn’t like it needs to spend the next two years persuading the public not just to tell pollsters they don’t like tax cuts for the rich, but to actually vote out of office anyone who supports tax cuts for the rich. That’s the only way we’ll win the replay of this battle in 2012.
I’m not looking to go tit-for-tat on whether direct government spending/investment is “more efficient” than providing payroll tax cuts, as it’s pretty clear which side we are both on (as I’m much less sanguine on the Keynesian consumption function, for a reasonable view from the other side, see here), however I do want to address his prescription of a public awareness campaign in order to return to “normal”, with normal being defined as roughly “Clinton-era tax rates” on capital and high incomes.
I view this very compromise as a golden opportunity for the left to reinvent themselves with regard to taxation, win an adjacent political battle (and a dear progressive goal), and wrap it all up in a bow that not only makes our government funding more efficient, but lowers tax rates for virtually everyone. And that is to begin a campaign of gradually removing the income tax, in exchange for a revenue-neutral tax on carbon, which would be gradually instituted as the income tax was phased out. In addition, offer an automatic stabilization policy of payroll tax cuts (all of them, or at least all of the “employers share” — the better side to cut — in exchange for a sharply more progressive payroll tax, used to fund Social Security and Medicare/caid. Institute a progressive VAT or GST with a standard deduction of the first $25,000 of income for all taxpayers, and expand a means tested EITC, as well. You could trade this for elimination of minimum wages, but that’s not a real pressing problem in my mind. At the end of the line, offer a land tax in exchange for really whatever the right happens to want for it. Repeal of the estate tax, maybe?
That would be a real “progressive” package that would end the debate regarding the level of income taxation (from any source; labour, capital, etc). It would simplify our tax code, and get rid of ridiculous inefficiencies like the mortgage income tax deduction. More importantly, contrary to our current tax code, the new consumption-based funding of government would encourage a greater savings and investment equilibrium.
Beyond the scope of this post — but relevant — is different ways that you can find to streamline efficiency of the government. I seem to remember an argument put forth by Matt Yglesias that I personally agree with (and can’t find the link to currently), and find it baffling that it is so often overlooked; and that is that there are some government workers whose marginal utility is so low, that paying them anything at all constitutes overpayment. So it’s not a question of overpayment, it’s a question of marginal utility. At the margin, is society gaining utility by paying various individuals? If yes, then pay them. If not, then don’t.
That aside, I do think that this is a unique opportunity for Democrats to articulate a new vision for government funding that better enables elements of the welfare state that they hold so dear, this is highly progressive, removes the distortions and bad incentives created by the income tax, and genuinely makes the economy more efficient — facilitating growth. It could be a popular platform, and one that I would vote Democrat for, and I’ll be that many other pragmatic libertarians would feel the same way.
Of course, at the end of the day, I still believe that monetary policy is the last mover. The Fed has quietly indicated that it is looking at extending QE2, which is definitely good for the prospects of any pet fiscal policy.