Economics, Monetary Policy, Pethokoukis, U.S. Economy

An open letter to George Will on the Federal Reserve and monetary policy

Image Credit: jaci starkey (Flickr) CC

Image Credit: jaci starkey (Flickr) CC

Mr. Will:

I don’t believe we’ve ever met, though for several years our paths frequently crossed in Georgetown as we both walked to lunch. Of course I’m a long–time reader of your newspaper columns, gaining valuable insight from and agreeing with the vast, vast majority. Your writings on the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, however, land in that misguided minority. Take your most recent piece on the nomination process for new Fed chairman and the central bank’s continued bond buying program — a failed effort, in your view. The final paragraph provides a good summary:

The Fed has become the model of applied progressivism, under which power flows to clever regulators who operate independent of political control. The Fed is, however, a creation of Congress, which may not forever refrain from putting a bridle and snaffle on a Fed that increasingly allocates credit, wealth and opportunity.

A few friendly observations:

1. That “bridle and snaffle” you wish Congress to apply would be, I assume, a single mandate focused solely on price stability to replace the current dual mandate that demands the Fed also pursue maximum employment. In other words, you wish the Fed was more like the European Central Bank. But the ECB’s policy has been a disaster in recent years. Unlike the Bernanke Fed, it has failed to offset the eurozone’s fiscal austerity with monetary easing. The US economy has been slowly growing since summer 2009 and adding jobs despite the most intense fiscal consolidation since the Korean War demobilization. The eurozone, on the other hand, is only now emerging from a double-dip recession as unemployment remains at the worst levels since the start of the 2007 global recession.

2. The Fed isn’t allocating “credit, wealth, and opportunity,” it’s merely trying to accommodate excess demand for liquid assets, bonds, and cash in the aftermath of a series of economic shocks: the recession, financial meltdown, and euro-zone crisis. When a central bank fails to do this essential job of meeting money demand, as happened in 2008 globally, you get depressions or at least great recessions. If the Fed was creating a “sugar high,” inflation would be surging rather than quiescent. And equating low interest rates with easy money is a mistake. As Milton Friedman put it: “After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead.”

3. Speaking of Uncle Miltie, you seem completely unaware of the market monetarist school which has updated Friedman’s monetarist approach to monetary policy. Market monetarists — and they exist on the left and right — advocate the Fed target the path of nominal GDP and make up for any misses. While the Fed cannot much affect the US economy’s potential growth rate, it can offset severe demand shocks and stabilize total spending in the economy with this rule-based approach to monetary policy. Economist Scott Sumner offers an excellent summary in this National Affairs essay, “Re-Targeting the Fed.” I would also recommend ringing up Richmond Fed economist Robert Hetzel. As Hetzel persuasively argues in The Great Recession: Market Failure or Policy Failure, it was the Fed’s tight monetary policy miscues after the 2008 downturn began that turned a run-of-the-mill recession into a once-in-a century disaster.

4. I guess my basic point is that the center-right approach to effective, rules-based monetary policy isn’t just limited to the supposedly prewar Austrian (gold standard, business cycle) critique that you lay out in the column. (Friedman once said: “I think the Austrian business-cycle theory has done the world a great deal of harm.”)

As I wrote recently in National Review: “This is a critical period for economic thinking on the right. It’s reminiscent of the late 1970s when conservatives accepted economic reality and abandoned root-canal fiscal policy — recall that Barry Goldwater voted against JFK’s supply-side tax cuts — for Reagan’s pro-growth economics. Now it’s time to reject a resurgence of root-canal monetary policy, too.”


James Pethokoukis

9 thoughts on “An open letter to George Will on the Federal Reserve and monetary policy

  1. Correct.
    Will’s view of the Fed bond-buying program as a failure is based on the stated purpose of the program. The program is quite successful in achieving its true goal: positive cash flow for Wall Street.

  2. What I learned today:

    1) There is absolutely no differences at all between the U.S. economy and the economies in Europe besides central banking policy. No other variables at all!

    2) Critics of money printing think central banks should work to ensure prices remain the same no matter what.

    3) There is a specific amount of money the market demands and the Fed is capable of knowing what this number is.

    4) It is somehow possible to know what prices would be absent central banking interventions (apparently technological innovation does not, in fact, reduce prices).

    5) George Will is “completely unaware” that there is a small school of thought called “market monetarism.”

    6) Mr. Pethokoukis writes for the conservative publication, National Review.

  3. Excellent blogging.
    BTW, the Bank of Japan proved that merely low interest rates still can be “tight money”. The yen soared after 1992. The Fed’s bond buying program is still not “easy money”—that is why we have seen record low inflation.
    The Fed needs to buy even more bonds…it is being artificially tight…

  4. I’ve been hoping someone would communicate this to George Will since I started reading Scott Sumner about two years ago. Thank you!

  5. I think the Fed is guilty of “increasingly allocating credit.” In particular, the shift into mortgage backed securities was rationalized as an effort to improve the housing market. Combined with the policy of paying interest on reserves, this is an effort to allocate credit and the composition of spending on output, rather than aggregate spending on output while allowing the market to allocate credit, spending, and resources.

  6. If wages and prices controls are antithetical to the conservative viewpoint, why would government control over interest rates be rational?

    We understand that no centralized government can interfere with pricing without incurring inefficiencies and unintended consequences.

    How are interest rates, the central figure of any developed economy, any less susceptible to the problems of interfering with market pricing? How are they less likely to run headlong into knowledge deficits and political interference?

  7. Things I still don’t know.

    1. Why your so upset with Mr. Will for pointing out that the Fed is a creature of Congress.

    2. “The Fed isn’t allocating “credit, wealth, and opportunity,” (it just feels that way because the wealthiest 0.5% were made whole against losses incurred during said meltdown) it’s merely trying to accommodate excess demand for liquid assets, bonds, and cash in the aftermath of a series of economic shocks: the recession, financial meltdown, and euro-zone crisis” – You don’t mention that the Fed printed money for the Treasury to spend on Obama’s expansion of government? Why? You included the euro-zone – is that a Fed responsibility? Which part of the dual mandate?

    3. I didn’t know about the new schools of monetarism, and credit allocation spending, and root canal monetary policy – whatever that is. I still don’t.

    4. When the US government will start to pay back the $17 trillion it owes. I must admit that you have confirmed my suspicions, along with the non-taper, that NZIR are here to stay, as a 1% increase is $0.17 Trillion in interest. But this is not root-canal, this is burn the children’s future opportunity monetary policy, by making them debt surfs.

    5. What is the definition of too big to fail? When will bankruptcy be thought of as a natural part of the business cycle again? Maybe you have a new school to suggest on that one.

    6. How you can have a President who doesn’t uphold his oath, the laws of the land, or even his own laws, and expect stability to return to the monetary system?

  8. What is Wrong with the Fed’s Policies

    It is clear today – five years after our last crisis of 2008 – that the Federal Reserve’s program of “Large Scale Asset Purchases” (LSAP) is a losing proposition.

    It is undeniable that the Fed has conducted an all-out effort to restore normal economic conditions over the last five years; however, while monetary policy works with a lag, the LSAP shows no measurable benefit. This lapse of time is now far greater than even the longest of the lags measured in the extensive body of scholarly work regarding monetary policy.

    As I said it multiple times already, Quantitative easing never helped Main Street or the average American. It only helped big banks, corporations and investors alike. Not only have the Fed not improved matters, they have actually made economic conditions worse with their experiments.

    So what’s wrong with the Fed’s policies?

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