How Fed Policy Could Leave The Country At The Mercy Of Another Recession


The Federal Reserve released its statement from the latest Federal Open Market Committee meeting this past week. Its projections see economic growth reaching 3.8 percent at best over the next three years, hovering between two and three percent per year after that, and finally driving unemployment down to between five and six percent after 2015.

None of that is especially new or encouraging. But on Wednesday, Ryan Avent at The Economist pointed out another number in the report that hints at a more subtle, but possibly more pernicious problem. It’s the federal funds rate, which is the interest rate the Fed charges other banks when it lends them money — thereby guiding interest rates throughout the economy — and which has basically been at zero since the Great Recession:

If recovery proceeds as the Fed anticipates, its interest-rate target will remain at near zero until at least 2015. Perhaps more worrying, the FOMC’s best guess at the appropriate, long-run value of the fed funds rate is about 4 percent. That is strikingly low. In each of the past three recessions the Fed has responded by cutting the fed funds rate more than 4 percentage points. A fed funds rate at that level virtually guarantees that the next downturn will result in a relapse into [zero lower bound] territory.

The Fed has a dual mandate to control inflation and maximize employment, and the federal funds rate is the mechanism by which it does both. It can boost the economy by cutting the rate, or rein in inflation by raising the rate. So there’s an inherent balancing act, and the Fed needs room to go in both directions. That’s why, over the past 40 years, the rate only briefly dipped below the four percent mark, and spent most of the boom-time 90s at over five percent:

There’s an imbalance in the Fed’s policy toolkit, in that it can raise the rate as high as it wants to fight inflation, but it can’t cut it past zero to boost the economy and job growth. That’s the problem of the “zero lower bound” Avent refers to. If the rate doesn’t get above four percent, but the Fed needs to cut at least that much to boost the economy, then there’s just not going to be much room to maneuver when the next recession rolls around.

Some economists such as Paul Krugman argue that when monetary policy hits the zero lower bound, fiscal policy (i.e. stimulus spending) becomes the primary tool to help the economy. But others, like Scott Sumner, argue that quantitative easing and other forms of unconventional monetary policy can still work just as well if not better than fiscal policy when the federal funds rate is at zero.

Unfortunately, Republicans are vociferously opposed to both policies. They’ve relentlessly pressured the Fed and Chairman Ben Bernanke to end quantitative easing or even hike the federal funds rate, incessantly warning of runaway inflation that never materializes. There’s also been no real opposing pressure from Democrats or progressives to prioritize job growth. The Fed’s latest form of quantitative easing has been a big step in the right direction, but several members of the governing committee or so skittish they’ve proposed ending it as early as this year.

On top of that, the way the Fed is designed and governed saddles it with additional biases towards cutting inflation over pushing up employment. As an institution, it’s more attuned to the concerns of the financial industry, business owners and the wealthy. Those groups are generally indifferent to sluggish economic growth — they’re the last to lose their homes or livelihoods if the economy implodes or unemployment spikes — but they all have a vested interest in low and stable inflation.

So not surprisingly, for the last twenty years or more, low and stable inflation is exactly what the country got. Even after the Great Recession, the Fed consistently hit its two percent inflation target, even as its counterbalancing mandate to boost employment was essentially ignored:

Arguably, the fundamental problem is the Fed did too good a job at reining in inflation.

Inflation is the natural response of an economy to robust growth, as rising wages put upward pressure on other prices. A Fed devoted to controlling inflation above all else will inevitably also weigh down jobs and wages for working Americans. “Morning in America,” the economic boom of the Reagan years, was accompanied by four percent inflation on average — twice the level we’re seeing now.

The last few decades of low inflation also came alongside stagnating median wages, and a new form of “jobless” recovery that brings back economic growth, but not the job growth of previous post-war recoveries. The result has been a self-reinforcing downward spiral, as stalled wages bring more inequality and less inflation, eliminating the need for a higher federal funds rate and ultimately leaving the Fed with ever less ammunition to boost employment with each successive recession.

Certainly, the Fed’s preference for exceedingly low inflation is not the whole cause behind slow wage growth and rampant inequality. But it’s most likely a big part.