Nominal Income and the Great Moderation

The period from 1984 through 2007 was one that exhibited a marked decline in macroeconomic volatility. As such, it is commonly referred to as the Great Moderation. This period has potentially important implications for policy. If, for example, the reduction in volatility was the result of smaller “exogenous shocks” to the economy, then we can largely view the period as one of good luck. However, if the reduction in volatility can be linked to a change in policy, then this period can potentially provide guidance as to how policy should be conducted in the future.

A subset of the literature on the Great Moderation suggests that the reduction in volatility can be explained by a change in monetary policy. In particular, this research largely suggests that the change in monetary policy during the Great Moderation was the Federal Reserve’s commitment to the Taylor principle. Put succinctly, the Taylor principle refers to the idea in which the central bank raises the nominal interest rate more than one-for-one with realized inflation. In other words, the central bank increases the real interest in response to higher realized inflation.

In a new paper, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Macroeconomics, I argue that monetary policy was in fact an important factor in reducing macroeconomic volatility. However, I present an alternative view of the behavior or monetary policy and explicitly reject what I call the “Taylor view.” Specifically, in the paper I make the following argument:

An alternative view of the change in monetary policy from the Great Inflation to the Great Moderation is that there was an overhaul of Federal Reserve doctrine. The radical change in monetary policy was that the Federal Reserve placed emphasis on the role of inflation expectations, knowing that if inflation expectations were stabilized, the price system would restore full employment. The mechanism through which the Federal Reserve sought to achieve this goal was in maintaining low, stable rates of nominal income growth. The commitment to a low, stable rate of nominal income growth regardless of fluctuations in output and employment would give the central bank credibility and therefore stabilize inflation expectations. Full employment was left to the price system.

This understanding of the change in policy is in sharp contrast to the Taylor view. As I argue in the paper, during the Great Inflation period of the 1970s, members of the FOMC regularly asserted that the process of inflation determination had changed. Relying on public statements and personal diary entries from Arthur Burns, I demonstrate that there is little evidence that the Federal Reserve was less concerned with inflation during the 1970s. Rather, the view of Burns and others was that inflation was largely a cost-push phenomenon. Burns thought that incomes policies were necessary to restore price stability and stated that “monetary and fiscal tools are inadequate for dealing with sources of price inflation that are plaguing us now.”

The shift in policy, beginning with Paul Volcker, was an explicit attempt to stabilize inflation expectations and this was done deliberately at first through monetary targeting and ultimately through the stabilization of nominal income growth. Gone were notions of cost-push versus demand-pull inflation. The Fed simply assumed accountability as the creator of inflation.

In addition to examining public statements, I empirically test the hypothesis that the Federal Reserve became more responsive to their forecasts of nominal GDP growth beginning with Paul Volcker. In addition, using simulations (based on simple, conventional sticky-price models), I demonstrate that a monetary policy rule based on the estimated response to these forecasts can potentially explain the reduction in macroeconomic volatility observed during the Great Moderation.

For those interested, a link to the working paper version of the paper can be found here. (The link is a viewable link. To download the paper, go here.)

7 responses to “Nominal Income and the Great Moderation

  1. Josh: “Rather, the view of Burns and others was that inflation was largely a cost-push phenomenon. Burns thought that incomes policies were necessary to restore price stability and stated that “monetary and fiscal tools are inadequate for dealing with sources of price inflation that are plaguing us now.””

    People forget (and maybe younger people never knew) just how common that view was in the 1970′s. It was common among economists as well as the general population. It was almost the orthodoxy of the time, IIRC. Tighter monetary policy would just raise interest rates, which would increase costs, and make inflation even worse.

  2. Nick,

    Yes, you are correct. I make the point in the paper that Burns’ view is consistent with the orthodoxy of the time — as epitomized, for example, by Samuelson and Solow (1960).

  3. Josh
    Agree with your analysis wholeheartedly. A couple of years ago I wrote this piece which became a post one year later. It´s non technical and full of illustrations.

    http://thefaintofheart.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/insisting-on-targeting-the-fed-funds-rate-can-be-bad-for-the-economy%C2%B4s-health/

  4. Nick:

    There were really _economists_ who thought that “tighter money” would raise inflation through a cost-push mechanism?

    Of course, I did read that argument in op-ed pieces, but it usually seemed to be transparent special interest pleading by those selling interest-sensitive products.

  5. Pingback: Josh Hendrickson shows that the Fed targeted NGDP growth « The Market Monetarist

  6. “And yet another factor has been the undue reliance on restrictive monetary policy to limit demand, with the perverse result of making interest rates themselves a major cost-push force.” – Robert V. Roosa in Fortune magazine, September 1971.

    I’ll swap that for two or three hobbyist-level links explaining what’s wrong with the idea.

  7. Sumner: “Let me repeat, higher interest rates are inflationary. They increase velocity. If you don’t believe me, check out interest rates and velocity during any extremely high inflation episode. When rates rise, inflation usually rises. Higher interest rates are inflationary. Repeat 100 times. But the thing the Fed uses to generate higher short term interest rates—a reduction in the money growth rate—is deflationary.”

    http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=18735

    Interest rates are a major cost-push force.

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