Jon Hilsenrath has quite the article in The Wall Street Journal, the title of which is “Years of Fed Missteps Fueled Disillusion With the Economy and Washington”. The article criticizes Fed policy, suggests these policy failures are at least partially responsible for the rise in populism in the United States, and presents a rather incoherent view of monetary policy. As one should be able to tell, the article is wide-ranging, so I want to do something different than I do in a typical blog post. I am going to go through the article point-by-point and deconstruct the narrative.
Let’s start with the lede:
Once-revered central bank failed to foresee the crisis and has struggled in its aftermath, fostering the rise of populism and distrust of institutions
There is a lot tied up in this lede. First, has the Federal Reserve ever been a revered institution? According to Hilsenrath’s own survey evidence, in 2003 only 53% of the population rated the Fed as “Good” or “Excellent”. In the midst of the Great Moderation, I would hardly called this revered.
Second, I’ve really grown tired of this argument that economists or policymakers or the Fed “failed to foresee the crisis.” The implicit assumption is that if the crisis had been foreseen, steps could have been taken to prevent it or make it less severe. But, if we accept this assumption, then we would only observe crises when they weren’t foreseen. Yet crises that were prevented would never show up in the data.
Third, to attribute the rise in populism to Federal Reserve policy presumes that the populism is tied to economic factors that the Fed can influence. Sure, if the Fed could have used policy to make real GDP higher today than it had been in the past that might have eased economic concerns. But productivity slowdowns and labor market disruptions caused by trade shocks are not things that the Federal Reserve can correct. To the extent to which these factors are what is driving populism, the Fed only has limited ability to ease such concerns.
But that’s enough about the lede…
So the basis of the article is that Fed policy has been a failure. This policy failure undermined the standing of the institution, created a wave of populism, and caused the Fed to re-think its policies. I’d like to discuss each of these points individually using passages from the article.
Let’s begin by discussing the declining public opinion of the Fed. Hilsenrath shows in his article that the public’s assessment of the Federal Reserve has declined significantly since 2003. He also shows that people have a great deal less confidence in Janet Yellen than Alan Greenspan? What does this tell us? Perhaps the public had an over-inflated view of the Fed to begin with. It certainly reasonable to think that the public had an over-inflated view of Alan Greenspan. It seems to me that there is a simple negative correlation between what they think of the Fed and a moving average of real GDP growth. It is unclear whether there are implications beyond this simple correlation.
Regarding the rise in populism, everyone has their grand theory of Donald Trump and (to a lesser extent) Bernie Sanders. Here’s Hilsenrath:
For anyone seeking to explain one of the most unpredictable political seasons in modern history, with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, a prime suspect is public dismay in institutions guiding the economy and government. The Fed in particular is a case study in how the conventional wisdom of the late 1990s on a wide range of economic issues, including trade, technology and central banking, has since slowly unraveled.
Do Trump and Sanders supporters have lower opinions of the Fed than the population as whole? Who knows? We are not told in the article. Also, has the conventional wisdom been upended? Whose conventional wisdom? Economists? The public?
So the populism and the reduced standing of the Fed appear to be correlations with things that are potentially correlated with Fed policy. Hardly the smoking gun suggested by the lede. So what about the re-thinking that is going on at the Fed?
First, officials missed signs that a more complex financial system had become vulnerable to financial bubbles, and bubbles had become a growing threat in a low-interest-rate world.
Secondly, they were blinded to a long-running slowdown in the growth of worker productivity, or output per hour of labor, which has limited how fast the economy could grow since 2004.
Thirdly, inflation hasn’t responded to the ups and downs of the job market in the way the Fed expected.
These are interesting. Let’s take them point-by-point:
1. Could the Fed have prevented the housing bust and the subsequent financial crisis? It is unclear. But even if they completed missed this, could not policy have responded once these effects became apparent?
2. What does this even mean? If there is a productivity slowdown that explains lower growth, then shouldn’t the Federal Reserve get a pass on the low growth of real GDP over the past several years? Shouldn’t we blame low productivity growth?
3. Who believes in the Phillips Curve as a useful guide for policy?
My criticism of Hilsenrath’s article should not be read as a defense of the Fed’s monetary policy. For example, critics might think I’m being a bit hypocritical since I have argued in my own academic work that the maintenance of stable nominal GDP growth likely contributed to the Great Moderation. The collapse of nominal GDP during the most recent recession would therefore seem to indicate a policy failure on the part of the Fed. However, notice how much different that argument is in comparison to the arguments made by Hilsenrath. The list provided by Hilsenrath suggests that the problems with Fed policy are (1) the Fed isn’t psychic, (2) the Fed didn’t understand that slow growth is not due to their policy, and (3) that the Phillips Curve is dead. Only this third component should factor into a re-think. But for most macroeconomists that re-think began taking place as early as Milton Friedman’s 1968 AEA Presidential Address — if not earlier. More recently, during an informal discussion at a conference, I observed Robert Lucas tell Noah Smith rather directly that “the Phillips Curve is dead” (to no objection) — so the Phillips Curve hardly represents conventional wisdom.
In fact, Hilsenrath’s logic regarding productivity is odd. He writes:
Fed officials, failing to see the persistence of this change [in productivity], have repeatedly overestimated how fast the economy would grow. The Fed has projected faster growth than the economy delivered in 13 of the past 15 years and is on track to do so again this year.
Private economists, too, have been baffled by these developments. But Fed miscalculations have consequences, contributing to start-and-stop policies since the crisis. Officials ended bond-buying programs, thinking the economy was picking up, then restarted them when it didn’t and inflation drifted lower.
There are 3 points that Hilsenrath is making here:
1. Productivity caused growth to slow.
2. The slowdown in productivity caused the Fed to over-forecast real GDP growth.
3. This has resulted in a stop-go policy that has hindered growth.
I’m trying to make sense of how these things fit together. Most economists think of productivity as being completely independent of monetary policy. So if low productivity growth is causing low GDP growth, then this is something that policy cannot correct. However, point 3 suggests that low GDP growth is explained by tight monetary policy. This is somewhat of a contradiction. For example, if the Fed over-forecast GDP growth, then the implication seems to be that if they’d forecast growth perfectly, they would have had more expansionary policy, which could have increased growth. But if growth was low due to low productivity, then a more expansionary monetary policy would have had only a temporary effect on real GDP growth. In fact, during the 1970s, the Federal Reserve consistently over-forecast real GDP. However, in contrast to recent policy, the Fed saw these over-foreasts as a failure of their policies rather than a productivity slowdown and tried to expand monetary policy further. What Athanasios Orphanides’s work has shown is that the big difference between policy in the 1970s and the Volcker-Greenspan era was that policy in the 1970s put much more weight on the output gap. Since the Fed was over-forecasting GDP, this caused the Fed to think they were observing negative output gaps and subsequently conducted expansionary policy. The result was stagflation.
So is Hilsenrath saying he’d prefer that policy be more like the 1970s? One cannot simultaneously argue that growth is low because of low productivity and tight monetary policy. (Even if it is some combination of both, then monetary policy is of second-order importance and that violates Hilsenrath’s thesis.)
In some sense, what is most remarkable is how far the pendulum has swung in 7 years. Back in 2009, very few people argued that tight monetary policy was to blame for the financial crisis or the recession — heck, Scott Sumner started a blog primarily because he didn’t see anyone making the case that tight monetary policy was to blame. Now, in 2016, the Wall Street Journal is now publishing stories that blame the Federal Reserve for all of society’s ills. There is a case to be made that monetary policy played a role in causing the recession and/or in explaining the slow recovery. Unfortunately, this article in the WSJ isn’t it.