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The Grumpy Economist: Fed psychology updates

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Updates and rumination on my last few posts, why has the Fed responded so slowly to inflation. (Last post

1. Forward guidance? 

For the last several years, the Fed has placed more and more weight on “forward guidance.” This is the theory that by promising to keep interest rates low in the future, even after the time to do so will have passed, the Fed can stimulate immediately. That is especially useful at the zero bound, and it is an important and explicit part of the Fed’s new (well, pre-covid!) strategy. 

I and others were critical. Who will believe that the Fed, ex-post, will do what is not right at the time? I complained, will the Fed ever say to Congress, “yes, we should be raising rates, but we promised to keep them low 3 years ago when we were fighting deflation, so we have to keep that promise now. Sorry, inflation is going to have to rip a little stronger.” 

Well, that seems to be exactly what the Fed is doing. Surely some thought of “we promised to keep rates low, now we’d better do it or people will never believe our promises” might be what’s going on. I would be curious from Fed insiders if this is part of the discussion. 

I initially discounted this theory because then the Fed would be talking loudly about it. If you want to buy credibility, then say that’s what you’re doing. But in retrospect, saying loudly you’re going to screw up inflation because you promised to do so isn’t the wisest thing to do, so perhaps the Fed is making good on its promises, and not saying so loudly, to square that circle.  

 2. Fisherianism? 

I titled my first post, “is the Fed Fisherian?” A commenter asked whether in my view the Fed really thinks that raising rates to 4% rather than 2% would raise inflation.  Probably not. The model I used represents the Fed’s forecasts; and the Fisherian prediction is a consequence of that model. But that doesn’t mean the Fed believes all parts of that model 

The outlook is a judgmental forecast, informed by in-sample experience. None of us have much experience with the long run — what happens, on average, if the Fed raises rates to 4% and leaves them there for a decade not responding to anything? 

On the other hand… A big piece of evidence for the new (rather than old, spirals) Keynesian model is the very stable behavior of inflation at the zero bound. And that is experience with interest rates stuck for a long time. There was no spiral, and inflation was quite stable. It’s not hard to extrapolate that a constant 2% rate for a decade would produce the same inflation just 2% higher. 

3. Real rates? 

What is the core belief differentiating the Fed view from the traditional view? I think it is the effect of real raters on inflation. In the Fed’s outlook, there is still a substantial period in which inflation is higher than nominal rates, so the real rate is negative. In the Fed’s outlook, this period of negative real rates does not constitute additional monetary stimulus that sends inflation higher. The “temporary” shocks fade away, despite the negative real rates. In the traditional view, this period of negative real rates itself creates additional stimulus, and additional shock pushing inflation higher. That, not fisherianism, or the nature of expectations, may be the core of the debate. 

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