Yellen’s quiet revolution at the Fed
Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve’s influential Vice Chair and possible future replacement for Chairman Ben Bernanke, delivered an important speech this week. Entitled “Revolution and Evolution in Central Bank Communications,” Yellen traces the deep shift in sentiment towards the importance of policy transparency.
In 1977, when I started my first job at the Federal Reserve Board as a staff economist in the Division of International Finance, it was an article of faith in central banking that secrecy about monetary policy decisions was the best policy: Central banks, as a rule, did not discuss these decisions, let alone their future policy intentions. While the Federal Reserve is required by the Congress to promote stable prices and maximum employment, Federal Reserve officials at that time avoided discussing how policy would be used to pursue both sides of this mandate. Indeed, mere mention of the employment side of the mandate, even by the mid-1990s, was described in a New York Times article as the equivalent of “sticking needles in the eyes of central bankers.”
In her remarks, Yellen endorsed the concept of policy thresholds first championed by Chicago Fed President Charles Evans. Her backing suggests such numerical guideposts for policy – we’ll keep stimulating until jobs improve and as long as inflation doesn’t creep too far from the Fed’s 2 percent target – are effectively a done deal, though it remains unclear how quickly policymakers can agree on the details.
The Committee might eliminate the calendar date entirely and replace it with guidance on the economic conditions that would need to prevail before liftoff of the federal funds rate might be judged appropriate. Several of my FOMC colleagues have advocated such an approach, and I am also strongly supportive. The idea is to define a zone of combinations of the unemployment rate and inflation within which the FOMC would continue to hold the federal funds rate in its current, near-zero range.
For example, Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Fed, suggests that the FOMC should commit to hold the federal funds rate in its current low range at least until unemployment has declined below 7 percent, provided that inflation over the medium term remains below 3 percent. Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed, suggests thresholds of 5.5 percent for unemployment and 2.25 percent for the medium-term inflation outlook. Under such an approach, liftoff would not be automatic once a threshold is reached; that decision would require further Committee deliberation and judgment.
I support this approach because it would enable the public to immediately adjust its expectations concerning the timing of liftoff in response to new information affecting the economic outlook. This market response would serve as a kind of automatic stabilizer for the economy: Information suggesting a weaker outlook would automatically induce market participants to push out the anticipated date of tightening and vice versa.
Importantly, Yellen makes clear the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target is a long-run goal, not a ceiling, and that the employment mandate should get equal weight.
The optimal policy to implement this “balanced approach” to minimizing deviations from the inflation and unemployment goals involves keeping the federal funds rate close to zero until early 2016, about two quarters longer than in the illustrative baseline, and keeping the federal funds rate below the baseline path through 2018. This highly accommodative policy path generates a faster reduction in unemployment than in the baseline, while inflation slightly overshoots the Committee’s 2 percent objective for several years.
How effective will such guidance be at making monetary policy more effective? Some market participants have their doubts. Stephen Stanley at Pierpont Securities writes:
Fed officials continue to grasp for ways to make policy even easier and/or to communicate their intentions more clearly. All of this is of marginal importance at best. […] The active discussions regarding what to do next strike me as quite trivial from a practical standpoint.