Aug 29th 2015

A Cautionary History of US Monetary Tightening

by J. Bradford DeLong

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Assistant US Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

BERKELEY – The US Federal Reserve has embarked on an effort to tighten monetary policy four times in the past four decades. On every one of these occasions, the effort triggered processes that reduced employment and output far more than the Fed’s staff had anticipated. As the Fed prepares to tighten monetary policy once again, an examination of this history – and of the current state of the economy – suggests that the United States is about to enter dangerous territory.

Between 1979 and 1982, then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker changed the authorities’ approach to monetary policy. His expectation was that by controlling the amount of money in circulation, the Fed could bring about larger reductions in inflation with smaller increases in idle capacity and unemployment than what traditional Keynesian models predicted.

Unfortunately for the Fed – and for the American economy – the Keynesian models turned out to be accurate; their forecasts of the costs of disinflation were dead on. Furthermore, this period of monetary tightening had unexpected consequences; financial institutions like Citicorp found that only regulatory forbearance saved them from having to declare bankruptcy, and much of Latin America was plunged into a depression that lasted more than five years.

Then, between 1988 and 1990, another round of monetary tightening under Alan Greenspan ravaged the balance sheets of the country’s savings and loan associations, which were overleveraged, undercapitalized, and already struggling to survive. To prevent the subsequent recession from worsening, the federal government was forced to bail out insolvent institutions. State governments were on the hook, too: Texas spent the equivalent of three months of total state income to rescue its S&Ls and their depositors.

Between 1993 and 1994, Greenspan once again reined in monetary policy, only to be surprised by the impact that small amounts of tightening could have on the prices of long-term assets and companies’ borrowing costs. Fortunately, he was willing to reverse his decision and cut the tightening cycle short (over the protests of many on the policy-setting Federal Open Markets Committee) – a move that prevented the US economy from slipping back into recession.

The most recent episode – between 2004 and 2007 – was the most devastating of the four. Neither Greenspan nor his successor, Ben Bernanke, understood how fragile the housing market and the financial system had become after a long period of under-regulation. These twin mistakes – deregulation, followed by misguided monetary-policy tightening – continue to gnaw at the US economy today.

The tightening cycle upon which the Fed now seems set to embark comes at a delicate time for the economy. The US unemployment rate may seem to hint at the risk of rising inflation, but the employment-to-population ratio continues to signal an economy in deep distress. Indeed, wage patterns suggest that this ratio, not the unemployment rate, is the better indicator of slack in the economy – and nobody ten years ago would have interpreted today’s employment-to-population ratio as a justification for monetary tightening.

Indeed, not even the Fed seems convinced that the economy faces imminent danger of overheating. Inflation in the US is not just lower than the Fed’s long-term target; it is expected to stay that way for at least the next three years. And the Fed’s change in policy comes at a time when its own economists believe that US fiscal policy is inappropriately restrictive.

Meanwhile, given the fragility – and interconnectedness – of the global economy, tightening monetary policy in the US could have negative impacts abroad (with consequent blowback at home), especially given the instability in China and economic malaise in Europe.

It is tempting to conclude that the Fed’s eagerness to tighten monetary policy – despite unfavorable historical precedents and ongoing economic uncertainty – is driven by commercial banks with excessive influence in official policymaking. After all, commercial banks’ business model works only when the banks can earn (via passive and relatively safe long-term investments) at least 3% a year more than they pay depositors. And that is possible only if US Treasury rates are higher than they are now.

If this is true, it would reflect a failure by bankers to understand their industry’s material interests. What would most benefit commercial banks is not an immediate increase in interest rates, but a monetary policy that contributes to ensuring that the economy is capable of supporting higher interest rates in the future. If history is any guide, tightening monetary policy in the near term will only lead to further economic turbulence, followed by a rapid retreat to low interest rates. Embarking on that path should be a cause of concern for everyone.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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