Bernanke: U.S. is not Japan, and I have not changed my mind

April 26, 2012


Of all the questions Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was asked during his press conference on Wednesday, one appeared to pique his interest in particular: Was he being less aggressive as central bank chairman than the advice he dished out to Japan as an academic in the 1990s would prescribe?

It was the second half of the question asked by Binyamin Applebaum and yet the chairman was eager to get right to it: “Let me tackle that second part first,” he began.

Applebaum may have been channeling the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, a Princeton colleague of Bernanke’s and critic of Fed policy, who recently argued the Fed chief was being inconsistent and overly cautious.

Bernanke argued that the Fed has done a lot already to support growth and bring down unemployment. Actively aiming for higher inflation with additional use of unconventional tools would risk the central bank’s long-term credibility. Here is his answer in full:

So there’s this view circulating that the views I expressed about 15 years ago on the Bank of Japan are somehow inconsistent with our current policies. That is absolutely incorrect. My views and our policies today are completely consistent with the views that I held at that time.

I made two points at that time to the Bank of Japan. The first was that I believe that a determined central bank could and should work to eliminate deflation – that is, falling prices. The second point that I made was that when short-term interest rates hit zero, the tools of a central bank are no longer – are not exhausted. There are still other things that the central bank can do to create additional accommodation.

Now, looking at the current situation in the United States, we are not in deflation. When deflation became a significant risk in late 2010, or at least a modest risk in late 2010, we used additional balance sheet tools to help return inflation close to the 2 percent target. Likewise, we have been aggressive and creative in using non-federal-funds-rate-centered tools to achieve additional accommodation for the U.S. economy.

So the very critical difference between the Japanese situation 15 years ago and the U.S. situation today is that Japan was in deflation. And, clearly, when you’re in deflation, and in recession, then both sides of your mandate, so to speak, are demanding additional accommodation. In this case, we are not in deflation. We have an inflation rate that’s close to our objective.

Now, why don’t we do more? Well, first I would again reiterate that we are doing a great deal. The policy is extraordinarily accommodative. We – and I won’t go through the list again, but you know all the things that we have done to try to provide support to the economy. I guess the question is, does it make sense to actively seek a higher inflation rate in order to achieve a slightly increased reduction – a slightly increased pace of reduction in the unemployment rate?

The view of the committee is that that would be very reckless. We have – we, the Federal Reserve, have spent 30 years building up credibility for low and stable inflation, which has proved extremely valuable in that we’ve been able to take strong accommodative actions in the last four, five years to support the economy without leading to an unanchoring of inflation expectations or a destabilization of inflation. To risk that asset for what I think would be quite tentative and perhaps doubtful gains on the real side would be, I think, an unwise thing to do.

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Actually deflation is precisely what we need.

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