Bernanke needs to follow Volcker

US Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke could really take a leaf out of former US Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s book. In the 1970‘s the US economy was going through a period of stagflation – high unemployment and high inflation (both over 10%). Volcker believed that inflation was one of the worst of all economic evils and that it hinged on the growth of the money supply. He therefore began to target inflation which in turn would break people’s inflationary expectations. With this in mind he tightened the money supply and the prime interest rate reached 21.5% – the economy went into a nosedive. However the policy worked and inflation fell from 11% in 1979 to 3% in 1983 and subsequently with this lower inflation rate unemployment fell to 5.3% by 1989.

Today the US economy has 2.6% inflation and 9.6% unemployment and the current Fed policy, like that used in the pre-Volcker era, doesn’t seem to be working. According to Professor Christina Romer in the New York Times, Bernanke needs to be like Volcker and set a new policy framework which, this time, targets nominal gross domestic product which in turn would favour job creation. In the US normal output growth is around 2.5% and the inflation around the 2% so a target of 4.5% GDP would seem appropriate. How Professor Romer would see it operate would be like this:

The Fed would start from some normal year — like 2007 — and say that nominal G.D.P. should have grown at 4 1/2 percent annually since then, and should keep growing at that pace. Because of the recession and the unusually low inflation in 2009 and 2010, nominal G.D.P. today is about 10 percent below that path. Adopting nominal G.D.P. targeting commits the Fed to eliminating this gap.

How would this help to heal the economy? Like the Volcker money target, it would be a powerful communication tool. By pledging to do whatever it takes to return nominal G.D.P. to its pre-crisis trajectory, the Fed could improve confidence and expectations of future growth.

The expected increase in inflation would effect inflationary expectations but a small increase in inflation would be beneficial as it would lower borrowing costs and encourage spending a large budgetary items.

Even if we went through a time of slightly elevated inflation, the Fed shouldn’t lose credibility as a guardian of price stability. That’s because once the economy returned to the target path, Fed policy — a commitment to ensuring nominal G.D.P. growth of 4 1/2 percent — would restrain inflation. Assuming normal real growth, the implied inflation target would be 2 percent — just what it is today.

Other policies within the framework include:

Quantitative Easing – printing more money
Lower the US$ – makes exports more competitive

Would this work today to reduce unemployment? I suppose the US Fed are currently running out of policy options and like Volcker in the 1980’s there needs to be a quiet revolution in the Fed’s thinking. I don’t mean the shock therapy used in Latin American countries but a realigning of the objectives of ecoomic policy. It seems that the bold measures of Volcker in 1980’s and Roosevelt in the 1930’s actaully brought the US economy out of its depressed state but in both periods of time the process involved a lot hardship and protest. I just wonder if the US Fed is prepared to go through this pain again? As President Reagan said about the recession the US economy was about to go through in the 1980’s –

“If not now, when? If not us, who?”

However The Economist has a different point of view with regard to targeting nominal gross domestic product – NGDP.

Asking central banks to ditch inflation targeting and to pursue another goal could do more harm than good particularly if it left people less certain about the central bank’s ultimate commitment to prudence and stability. That is why a switch to NGDP targeting, whatever its virtues, should not be undertaken lightly.

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