Monday, October 10, 2016

Strong confidence in monetary policies to deal with economic crisis

Although fiscal policies and structural reforms can play an important role in strengthening the U.S. economy, my primary message today is that I expect monetary policy will continue to play a vital part in promoting a stable and healthy economy. 

New policy tools, which helped the Federal Reserve respond to the financial crisis and Great Recession, are likely to remain useful in dealing with future downturns. Additional tools may be needed and will be the subject of research and debate. But even if average interest rates remain lower than in the past, I believe that monetary policy will, under most conditions, be able to respond effectively. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

We need to increase our productivity growth

Beyond monetary policy, fiscal policy has traditionally played an important role in dealing with severe economic downturns. A wide range of possible fiscal policy tools and approaches could enhance the cyclical stability of the economy.  For example, steps could be taken to increase the effectiveness of the automatic stabilizers, and some economists have proposed that greater fiscal support could be usefully provided to state and local governments during recessions. As always, it would be important to ensure that any fiscal policy changes did not compromise long-run fiscal sustainability.

Finally, and most ambitiously, as a society we should explore ways to raise productivity growth. Stronger productivity growth would tend to raise the average level of interest rates and therefore would provide the Federal Reserve with greater scope to ease monetary policy in the event of a recession. But more importantly, stronger productivity growth would enhance Americans' living standards. Though outside the narrow field of monetary policy, many possibilities in this arena are worth considering, including improving our educational system and investing more in worker training; promoting capital investment and research spending, both private and public; and looking for ways to reduce regulatory burdens while protecting important economic, financial, and social goals. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

How Federal Reserve can fight future turmoils

What does the future hold for the Fed's toolkit? For starters, our ability to use interest on reserves is likely to play a key role for years to come. In part, this reflects the outlook for our balance sheet over the next few years. As the FOMC has noted in its recent statements, at some point after the process of raising the federal funds rate is well under way, we will cease or phase out reinvesting repayments of principal from our securities holdings. Once we stop reinvestment, it should take several years for our asset holdings--and the bank reserves used to finance them--to passively decline to a more normal level. But even after the volume of reserves falls substantially, IOER will still be important as a contingency tool, because we may need to purchase assets during future recessions to supplement conventional interest rate reductions. 

Forecasts now show the federal funds rate settling at about 3 percent in the longer run. In contrast, the federal funds rate averaged more than 7 percent between 1965 and 2000. Thus, we expect to have less scope for interest rate cuts than we have had historically.

In part, current expectations for a low future federal funds rate reflect the FOMC's success in stabilizing inflation at around 2 percent--a rate much lower than rates that prevailed during the 1970s and 1980s. Another key factor is the marked decline over the past decade, both here and abroad, in the long-run neutral real rate of interest--that is, the inflation-adjusted short-term interest rate consistent with keeping output at its potential on average over time. Several developments could have contributed to this apparent decline, including slower growth in the working-age populations of many countries, smaller productivity gains in the advanced economies, a decreased propensity to spend in the wake of the financial crises around the world since the late 1990s, and perhaps a paucity of attractive capital projects worldwide. Although these factors may help explain why bond yields have fallen to such low levels here and abroad, our understanding of the forces driving long-run trends in interest rates is nevertheless limited, and thus all predictions in this area are highly uncertain. 

Would an average federal funds rate of about 3 percent impair the Fed's ability to fight recessions? Based on the FOMC's behavior in past recessions, one might think that such a low interest rate could substantially impair policy effectiveness. As shown in the first column of the table in the handout, during the past nine recessions, the FOMC cut the federal funds rate by amounts ranging from about 3 percentage points to more than 10 percentage points. On average, the FOMC reduced rates by about 5-1/2 percentage points, which seems to suggest that the FOMC would face a shortfall of about 2-1/2 percentage points for dealing with an average-sized recession. But this simple comparison exaggerates the limitations on policy created by the zero lower bound. As shown in the second column, the federal funds rate at the start of the past seven recessions was appreciably above the level consistent with the economy operating at potential in the longer run. In most cases, this tighter-than-normal stance of policy before the recession appears to have reflected some combination of initially higher-than-normal labor utilization and elevated inflation pressures. As a result, a large portion of the rate cuts that subsequently occurred during these recessions represented the undoing of the earlier tight stance of monetary policy. Of course, this situation could occur again in the future. But if it did, the federal funds rate at the onset of the recession would be well above its normal level, and the FOMC would be able to cut short-term interest rates by substantially more than 3 percentage points.

A recent paper takes a different approach to assessing the FOMC's ability to respond to future recessions by using simulations of the FRB/US model.19 This analysis begins by asking how the economy would respond to a set of highly adverse shocks if policymakers followed a fairly aggressive policy rule, hypothetically assuming that they can cut the federal funds rate without limit. It then imposes the zero lower bound and asks whether some combination of forward guidance and asset purchases would be sufficient to generate economic conditions at least as good as those that occur under the hypothetical unconstrained policy. In general, the study concludes that, even if the average level of the federal funds rate in the future is only 3 percent, these new tools should be sufficient unless the recession were to be unusually severe and persistent.

Figure 2 in your handout illustrates this point. It shows simulated paths for interest rates, the unemployment rate, and inflation under three different monetary policy responses--the aggressive rule in the absence of the zero lower bound constraint, the constrained aggressive rule, and the constrained aggressive rule combined with $2 trillion in asset purchases and guidance that the federal funds rate will depart from the rule by staying lower for longer. As the blue dashed line shows, the federal funds rate would fall far below zero if policy were unconstrained, thereby causing long-term interest rates to fall sharply. But despite the lower bound, asset purchases and forward guidance can push long-term interest rates even lower on average than in the unconstrained case (especially when adjusted for inflation) by reducing term premiums and increasing the downward pressure on the expected average value of future short-term interest rates. Thus, the use of such tools could result in even better outcomes for unemployment and inflation on average.

Of course, this analysis could be too optimistic. For one, the FRB/US simulations may overstate the effectiveness of forward guidance and asset purchases, particularly in an environment where long-term interest rates are also likely to be unusually low.22 In addition, policymakers could have less ability to cut short-term interest rates in the future than the simulations assume. By some calculations, the real neutral rate is currently close to zero, and it could remain at this low level if we were to continue to see slow productivity growth and high global saving. If so, then the average level of the nominal federal funds rate down the road might turn out to be only 2 percent, implying that asset purchases and forward guidance might have to be pushed to extremes to compensate. Moreover, relying too heavily on these nontraditional tools could have unintended consequences. For example, if future policymakers responded to a severe recession by announcing their intention to keep the federal funds rate near zero for a very long time after the economy had substantially recovered and followed through on that guidance, then they might inadvertently encourage excessive risk-taking and so undermine financial stability.

Finally, the simulation analysis certainly overstates the FOMC's current ability to respond to a recession, given that there is little scope to cut the federal funds rate at the moment. But that does not mean that the Federal Reserve would be unable to provide appreciable accommodation should the ongoing expansion falter in the near term. In addition to taking the federal funds rate back down to nearly zero, the FOMC could resume asset purchases and announce its intention to keep the federal funds rate at this level until conditions had improved markedly--although with long-term interest rates already quite low, the net stimulus that would result might be somewhat reduced.

Despite these caveats, I expect that forward guidance and asset purchases will remain important components of the Fed's policy toolkit. In addition, it is critical that the Federal Reserve and other supervisory agencies continue to do all they can to ensure a strong and resilient financial system. That said, these tools are not a panacea, and future policymakers could find that they are not adequate to deal with deep and prolonged economic downturns. For these reasons, policymakers and society more broadly may want to explore additional options for helping to foster a strong economy.

On the monetary policy side, future policymakers might choose to consider some additional tools that have been employed by other central banks, though adding them to our toolkit would require a very careful weighing of costs and benefits and, in some cases, could require legislation. For example, future policymakers may wish to explore the possibility of purchasing a broader range of assets. Beyond that, some observers have suggested raising the FOMC's 2 percent inflation objective or implementing policy through alternative monetary policy frameworks, such as price-level or nominal GDP targeting. I should stress, however, that the FOMC is not actively considering these additional tools and policy frameworks, although they are important subjects for research. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Fed would consider buying stocks directly in the future

The Fed is more restricted in which assets it can purchase than other central banks. If we found, I think as other countries did, that they could reach the limits in terms of purchasing safe assets like longer-term government bonds, it could be useful to be able to intervene directly in assets where the prices have a more direct link to spending decisions.