Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Has the Fed lost the plot?

"I am afraid that the Fed Reserve, which regards its loose monetary policy can overcome potential recession, has missed the point. The underlying problem with US' economy is the unbelievable deficit! With high deficit and high oil price, I am reminded of the stagflation of 1970s. What do you think?" - Wallace

The Federal Reserve is in a tight spot. Their objective is to try to ensure that the US economy grows as fast as possible without generating excessive inflation. If the economy starts to slow, they cut interest rates, while if the economy grows too fast, they raise rates.

That's the theory, in the simplest possible terms. But the reality is much more complicated. We can think of the economy as consisting of many different key indicators, that all suggest different monetary policy responses. For example, if we were to focus on the latest employment numbers, GDP release, or inflation data, they were relatively strong, suggesting that a reduction in interest rates is definitely not required at the current point in time, and runs the risk of fueling further increases in the inflation rate. In sharp contrast, if we focus on one key aspect of the economy, the stock of wealth tied up in housing, this is dropping in value very quickly, and will most likely lead to a significant drop in consumption and a recession in the coming months. (I know I've been making this argument for some time now, but I still believe it to be true!).

Add to the mixture the fact the monetary policy acts on the real economy (e.g. GDP) with a lag of 6-12 months, and on the nominal economy (i.e. inflation) with a lag of 12-18 months, and you end up with a central bank that has to worry about what is going to happen in the future, rather than the present.

And just to make things even more confusing, the current subprime mortgage meltdown has effectively tightened monetary policy, as banks require higher interest rates to offset their increased risk aversion as a large part of their portfolio has gone up in smoke. To some extent, the cuts in interest rates have simply offset this recent phenomena. To illustrate this, consider the following graph, containing the prime rate, the effective federal funds rate, and the yield on BBA-rated bonds (all data taken from FRED). While the first two series have seen falls in interest rates since May of 50 basis points, the BBA yields are actually higher!

So coming back to the question, I think there is a risk of stagflation (when the economy's growth rate slows and inflation increases) if the central bank cuts rates too much, but there's also a risk of a serious recession (if house prices continue to fall dramatically, and consumers cut back on their consumption). On balance, we could argue about whether the central bank has done too little or too much, but we will never know for sure until after the fact, and by then it is too late to do anything about it!

On the real issue being the budget deficit, this is indeed a problem going forward for the United States, but not directly related to the monetary policy dilemma that the Federal Reserve faces. (In the margin, an expansionary fiscal policy requires a relatively contractionary monetary policy to offset its inflationary effects). And of course, moving to a contractionary fiscal policy would only make matters worse if the US economy does enter a recession.

No comments: