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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, financial issues and Southeast regional trends.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig and other Atlanta Fed economists.


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May 17, 2012


Is inflation targeting really dead?

Harvard's Jeffrey Frankel (hat tip, Mark Thoma) is the latest econ-blogger to cast an admiring gaze in the direction of nominal gross domestic product (GDP) targeting. Frankel's post is titled "The Death of Inflation Targeting," and the demise apparently includes the notion of "flexible targeting." The obituary is somewhat ironic in that at least some of us believe that the U.S. central bank has recently taken a big step in the direction of institutionalizing flexible inflation targeting. Frankel, nonetheless, makes a case for nominal GDP targeting:

"One candidate to succeed IT [inflation targeting] as the preferred nominal monetary-policy anchor has lately received some enthusiastic support in the economic blogosphere: nominal GDP targeting. The idea is not new. It had been a candidate to succeed money-supply targeting in the 1980's, since it did not share the latter's vulnerability to so-called velocity shocks.

"Nominal GDP targeting was not adopted then, but now it is back. Its fans point out that, unlike IT, it would not cause excessive tightening in response to adverse supply shocks. Nominal GDP targeting stabilizes demand—the most that can be asked of monetary policy. An adverse supply shock is automatically divided equally between inflation and real GDP, which is pretty much what a central bank with discretion would do anyway."

That's certainly true, but a nominal GDP target is consistent with a stable inflation or price-level objective only if potential GDP growth is itself stable. Perhaps the argument is that plausible variations in potential GDP are not large enough or persistent enough to be of much concern. But that notion just begs the core question of whether the current output gap is big or small. At least for me, uncertainty about where GDP is relative to its potential remains the key to whether policy should be more or less aggressive.

In another recent blog item (also with a pointer from Mark Thoma), Simon Wren-Lewis offers the opinion that acknowledging uncertainty about size of the output gap actually argues in favor of being "less cautious" about taking an aggressive policy course. The basic idea is familiar. It is a simple matter to raise rates should the Fed overestimate the magnitude of the output gap. But with the short-term policy rates already at zero, it is not so easy to go in the opposite direction should we underestimate the gap.

No argument there. As I pointed out in a May 3 macroblog item, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart has said the same thing. But, as I argued in that post, this point of view is only half the story. Though I agree that the costs are asymmetric to the downside with respect to the FOMC's employment and growth mandate, they look to me to be asymmetric to the upside with respect to the price stability mandate. And I view with some suspicion the claim that we know how to easily manage policy that turns out to be too aggressive after the fact.

My issues are not merely academic. In an important paper published a decade ago, Anasthsios Orphanides made this assertion:

"Despite the best of intentions, the activist management of the economy during the 1960s and 1970s did not deliver the desired macroeconomic outcomes. Following a brief period of success in achieving reasonable price stability with full employment, starting with the end of 1965 and continuing through the 1970s, the small upward drift in prices that so concerned Burns several years earlier gave way to the Great Inflation. Amazingly, during much of this period, specifically from February 1970 to January 1977, Arthur Burns, who so opposed policies fostering inflation, served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. How then is this macroeconomic policy failure to be explained? And how can such failures be avoided in the future?...

"The likely policy lapse leading to the Great Inflation …can be simply identified. It was due to the overconfidence with which policymakers believed they could ascertain in real-time the current state of the economy relative to its potential. The willingness to recognize the limitations of our knowledge and lower our stabilization objectives accordingly would be essential if we are to avert such policy disasters in the future."

With this historical observation in hand, it seems a short leap to turn Wren-Lewis's thought experiment on its head. Arguably, the last several years have demonstrated that nonconventional policy actions have been quite successful at short-circuiting the disinflationary spirals that pose the central downside risk when interest rates are near zero. (If you can tolerate a little math, a good exposition of both theory and evidence is provided by Roger Farmer.)

On the opposite side of the ledger, we know little about the conditions that would cause the Fed to lose credibility with respect to its commitment to its inflation goals, and very little about the triggers that would cause inflation expectations to become unanchored. Thus, I think it not difficult to construct a plausible argument about the risks of being wrong about the output gap that is exact opposite of the Wren-Lewis conclusion.

I end up about where I did in my previous post. Flexible inflation targeting, implemented in such a way that the 2 percent long-run inflation target rate exerts an observable gravitational pull over the medium term, feels about right to me. Despite what Frankel seems to believe, I think that idea is far from dead.

David AltigBy Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

May 17, 2012 in Deflation, Economic Growth and Development, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink

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Comments

"The obituary is somewhat ironic in that at least some of us believe that the U.S. central bank has recently taken a big step in the direction of institutionalizing flexible inflation targeting."

Well, sort of. First of all, the Fed's forecasts certainly look like 2% PCE is an upper limit not an average, most commentators rightly called foul after the last quarterly set of forecasts. There is no de-facto difference right now between strict inflation targeting with a 2% ceiling and what the fed is doing. ther is no "flexible" in the target, and the range of full employment forecasts is 5-7%, we are still well above that yet there is no tolerance for higher inflation. So no I would not say "we took a big step forward."

In fact, nominal expectations have collapsed (see beckworth and the Evans new paper) so i would say the Fed has zero credibility on the unemployment side of the mandate. unsurprisingly, confidence and planned expenditures have collapsed. Its not a structural thing.

TIPS markets are screaming: epic fail.

Second, the fed cannot promise to control import prices (and indeed, tightening in response to a supply shock is textbook bad macro). The Fed should only focus on the price of domestically produced goods (gdp deflator). The Fed should have payed more attention to the gdp deflator and less to the PCE during the 2003-2008 period. Cheap imports depressed the PCE early, then expensive oil pushed it up in 2008. Policy would have been tighter, earlier.

At Sept 16th 2008 meeting, despite declining employment, tight credit, high mortgage delinquencies, housing market is recession since 2006, and declining GDP deflator, the Fed was concerned about inflation - not the clearly weakening economy (because oil and commodities prices were high). 3 days later Lehman collapsed and 3 weeks later they eased.

If you think the Fed follows a "balanced Taylor Rule" using output and inflation (use the GDP deflator as i said above) thats just ngdp targeting, except that the Fed promises to correct its own errors over a 5 year period so that the average works out.

Also, another aspect of ngdp targeting is that it prevents a debt-deflation spiral that happened in 2008 (and i think this is what prevented the 1990 real estate bubble from becoming worse in 1990s).

So, yes, IT is dead. RIP and good riddance.

Posted by: dwb | May 17, 2012 at 11:34 PM

thanks for reading comments, this is an interesting debate. Just a couple points as I forced myself to go back and reread Orphanides paper.

1) He used the GDP deflator. I view the conclusions as applied to the Fed framework with suspicion there since the Fed targets PCE and we know they sent very different signals during 2008;

2)The Taylor rule performs worse under imperfect information about the output gap (see figure 9); in fact ngdp targeting still is better under perfect information than strict inflation targeting. This is consistent with McCallum's 1998 results as well as i recall.

3)His ngdp rule is a *growth rule* not a path rule; Sumner and Beckworth propose a path rule (i.e. the Fed promises to correct errors so that the 5 year average (say) is on a target path. Important difference.

4)The chief criticism is that we do not know what potential output is, therefore do not know what to set the path to. But we can observe the trend GDP deflator and adjust the path as needed to be consistent.

I think that if you were to compare Sumner/Beckworth ngdp path level targeting to gdp deflator path level targeting, or inflation targeting using the GDP deflator, then there would only be a very mild difference.

The crucial differences are: the response to supply shocks (the Fed can only control domestic goods prices); and all the theory and evidence that ngdp targeting avoids debt-deflationary spirals like we saw in 2008. Again, compare the response to the housing real estate in the early 90s (yes, we had a housing crisis then too!).


Posted by: dwb | May 19, 2012 at 02:31 PM

Another reason NGDP level targeting trumps inflation targeting: it would not allow expectations of nominal income growth to collapse.

http://macromarketmusings.blogspot.com/2012/05/dereliction-of-duty.html

Posted by: Anon1 | May 19, 2012 at 10:00 PM

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