The year 2013 marks the 100th anniversaries of two separate major institutional innovations in American economic policy: the Constitutional Amendment enacting the federal income tax, ratified on February 3, 1913, and the law establishing the Federal Reserve, passed in December 1913.
It took some time before the two new institutions became associated with the explicit concepts of fiscal policy and monetary policy, respectively. It wasn’t until after the experience of the 1930s that they came to be viewed as potential instruments for managing the macro-economy. John Maynard Keynes, of course, pointed out the advantages of expansionary fiscal policy in circumstances like the Great Depression. Milton Friedman blamed the Depression on the Fed for allowing the money supply to fall. [Tools of fiscal policy used by governments, in addition to tax rates and tax deductions, are spending and transfers. Tools of monetary policy used by central banks include interest rates, quantities of money and credit, and instruments such as reserve requirements and foreign exchange intervention used in various (non-US) countries.]
The time is right for the world’s major central banks to reconsider the framework they use in conducting monetary policy. The US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank are grappling with sustained economic weakness, despite years of low interest rates. In Japan, Shinzō Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) was elected prime minister December 16 on a platform of switching to a new, more expansionary, monetary policy. Mark Carney, the incoming governor of the Bank of England, has made clear that he is open to new thinking.
In 2008, the global financial system was grievously infected by so-called toxic assets originating in the United States. As a result of the crisis, many have asked what fundamental rethinking will be necessary to save macroeconomic theory. Some answers may lie with models that have in the past been applied to fit the realities of emerging markets — models that are at home with the financial market imperfections that have now unexpectedly turned up in industrialized countries.The imperfections include default risk, asymmetric information, incentive incompatibility, procyclicality of capital flows, procyclicality of fiscal policy, imperfect property rights, and other flawed institutions. To be sure, many of these theories had been first constructed in the context of industrialized economies, but they had not become mainstream there. Only in the context of less advanced economies were the imperfections undeniable. There the models thrived.
Some conservatives are attacking current U.S. monetary policy as being too expansionary, as likely to lead to excessive inflation and debauchment of the currency. The Weekly Standard is promoting a letter to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke that urges a reversal of its policy of QE2, its new round of monetary easing. The letter is signed by a list of conservatives, most of whom are well-known Republican economists, some associated with political candidates. Apparently the driving force is David Malpass, who was an official in the Reagan Treasury, and he is taking out newspaper ads later this week. This follows similar attacks on the Fed by politicians Sarah Palin, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan.
Alan Greenspan was right to raise the question “How do we know when ‘irrational exuberance’ has unduly escalated stock prices?”, which is what he actually said in 1996. But he was wrong to conclude subsequently that monetary policy should ignore asset prices (or even that it should take asset prices into account only to the extent that they contain information about future inflation, as the Inflation Targeters would have it). More specifically,
(1) Identifying in real time that we were in a stock market bubble by 2000 and a real estate bubble by 2006 was not in fact harder than the Fed’s usual job, forecasting inflation 18 months ahead;
(2) Central bankers do have tools that can often prick bubbles; and
(3) The “Greenspan put” policy of mopping up the damage only after run-ups abruptly end probably contributed to the magnitude of the bubbles ex ante, while yet being insufficient ex post to prevent the crisis from becoming the worst recession since the 1930s. All three points run contrary to what was conventional wisdom among monetary economists and central bankers a mere two years ago.