Rethinking central bank targets

At present, the Bank of England has an inflation target of 2% CPI at a 24-month time horizon. Most, other central banks also have simple Inflation targets. But central bankers’ opinions seem to be changing.

Consider four facts.
1. Many central banks around the world have had record low interest rates for nearly four years, backed up in some cases by programmes of quantitative easing, officially in pursuit of an inflation target.
2. The world is mired in recession or sluggish growth, on which monetary policy seems to have had only a modest effect.
3. Inflation seems to be poorly related to aggregate demand, at least within an economy. Instead, inflation in recent years seems to be particularly affected by commodity prices.
4. Success in meeting an inflation target could mean failure in terms of an economy achieving an actual growth rate equal to its potential rate.

It’s not surprising that there have been calls for rethinking monetary policy targets.

There have recently been two interesting developments: one is a speech by Mark Carney, Governor designate of the Bank of England; the other is a decision on targets by the Fed, reported at a press conference by Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Mark Carney proposes the possible replacement of an inflation target with a target for nominal GDP (NGDP). This could be, say, 5%. What is more, it should be an annual average over a number of years. Thus if the target is missed in one year, it can be made up in subsequent years. For example, if this year the actual rate of nominal GDP growth is 4%, then by achieving 6% next year, the economy would keep to the average 5% target. As Stephanie Flanders points out:

Moving to nominal GDP targets would send a signal that the Bank was determined to get back the nominal growth in the economy that has been lost, even if it is at the cost of pushing inflation above 2% for a sustained period of time.

In the USA, Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed would target unemployment by keeping interest rates at their current record lows until unemployment falls below a threshold of 6.5%.

Until recently, the Fed has been more flexible than most other central banks by considering not only inflation but also real GDP when setting interest rates. This has been close to following a Taylor rule, which involves targeting a weighted averaged of inflation and real GDP. However, in January 2012, the Fed announced that it would adopt a 2% long-run inflation target. So the move to targeting unemployment represents a rapid change in policy

So have simple inflation targets run their course? Should they be replaced by other targets or should targeting itself be abandoned? The following articles examine the issues.

Mark Carney hints at need for radical action to boost ailing economies The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (11/12/12)
George Osborne welcomes inflation target review The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick and James Kirkup (13/12/12)
Monetary policy: Straight talk The Economist, R.A. (12/12/12)
New Bank of England governor Mark Carney mulls end of inflation targets The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/12/12/)
Carney’s trail of carnage Independent, Ben Chu (12/12/12)
Mark Carney suggests targeting economic output BBC News (12/12/12)
A new target for the Bank of England? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (14/12/12)
Should the UK really ditch inflation target? Investment Week, Katie Holliday (14/12/12)
BoE economist Spencer Dale warns on Mark Carney’s ideas The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (12/12/12)

Ben Bernanke Outlines Fed Policy for 2013 IVN, Alex Gauthier (14/12/12)
Fed gives itself a new target BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (13/12/12)
Fed to Keep Easing, Sets Target for Rates CNBC, Jeff Cox (12/12/12)
Bernanke calls high unemployment rate ‘an enormous waste’ Los Angeles Times, Jim Puzzanghera (12/12/12)
Think the Fed has been too timid? Check out Britain and Japan. Washington Post, Brad Plumer (13/12/12)
Inflation Targeting is Dead, Long Live Inflation! The Market Oracle, Adrian Ash (14/12/12)

Speech and press conference
Guidance Bank of Canada, Mark Carney (11/12/12)
Transcript of Chairman Bernanke’s Press Conference Federal Reserve Bank, Ben Bernanke (12/12/12)


  1. Which of the following would meet an NGDP target of 5%: (a) 5% real growth and 0% inflation; (b) 5% real growth and 5% inflation; (c) 5% inflation and 0% growth?
  2. What are the main arguments in favour of an NGDP target?
  3. What factors would need to be taken into account in deciding the target rate of NGDP?
  4. What are the main arguments against an NGDP target?
  5. Is it possible to target two indicators with one policy instrument (interest rates)? Explain.
  6. Explain what is meant by Taylor rule?
  7. Is having an unemployment target a type of Taylor rule?
  8. Why may the rate of inflation (whether current or forecast) be a poor indicator of the state of the real economy?