The monetary policy mandates of central banks have an impact on all our lives. While the terminology might not be familiar to many outside economics, their impact is, however, undeniably important. This is because they set out the objectives for the operation of monetary policy. Adjustments to interest rates or the growth of the money supply, which affect us all, reflect the mandate given to the central bank.
Since 1977 the mandate given to the Federal Reserve (the US central bank) by Congress has been to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. This mandate has become known as the dual mandate because it emphasises both employment and stable prices. Since 2012, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee has issued an annual statemenent of its long-run goals. The latest was published in January 2019. Since this time, the Federal Reserve has explicitly set the ‘longer-run goal for inflation’ at 2 per cent. It has also emphasised that it would be ‘concerned’ if the inflation rate was persistently above or below this level.
In November 2018 the Federal Reserve began a review of its monetary policy strategy, its tools and how it communicates monetary policy. The review is being conducted within the guidelines that its statutory mandate gives and as well as the longer-term inflation goal of 2 per cent. However, one of the issues being addressed by the review is how the operation of monetary policy can avoid the rate of inflation frequently undershooting 2 per cent, as it has done since the financial crisis of the late 2000s and the introduction of the 2 per cent inflation rate target.
Chart 1 shows the annual rate of consumer price inflation in the US since 1998. It helps to illustrate the concern that low inflation rates can become entrenched. The chart shows that, while the average inflation rate from 1998 to 2008 was 2.7 per cent, from 2009 the average has been only 1.6 per cent. Interestingly, the average since 2012, when the explicit 2 per cent goal was introduced, to the present day is also 1.6 per cent. (Click here to download the PowerPoint chart.)
The concern going forward is that the natural or neutral rate of interest, which is the policy rate at which the rate of inflation is close to its target level and the level of output is close to its potential level, is now lower than in the recent past. Hence, when the next downturn occurs there is likely to be less room for cutting interest rates. Hence, the review is looking, in essence, to future-proof the conduct of monetary policy.
Chart 2 shows the Federal Fund rate since 1998. This is the rate at which commercial banks lend to each other the reserve balances they hold at the Federal Reserve in order to meet their reserve requirements. The Federal Reserve can affect this rate through buying or selling government securities. If it wants to drive up rates, it can sell holdings of government securities and reduce the money supply. If it wants to drive rates down, it can buy government securities and increase the money supply. The effects then ripple through to other interest rates and, in turn, aggregate demand and inflation. (Click here to download a copy of the PowerPoint chart.)
We can see from Chart 2 the dramatic cuts made by the Federal Reserve to interest rates as the financial crisis unfolded. The subsequent ‘normalisation’ of the Federal Funds rate in the 2010s saw the Federal Funds Rate rise to no higher than between 2.25 and 2.5 per cent. Then in 2019 the Federal Reserve began to cut rates again. This was despite historically-low unemployment rates. In November 2019 the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 per cent, its lowest since 1969. This has helped fuel the argument among some economists and financiers, which we saw earlier, that that the natural (or neutral) interest rate is now lower.
If the natural rate is lower, then this raises concerns about the effectiveness of monetary policy in future economic downturns. In this context, the review is considering ways in which the operation of monetary policy would be able to prevent the rate of inflation consistently undershooting its target. This includes a discussion of how the Fed can prevent inflationary expectations becoming anchored below 2 per cent. This is important because, should they do so, they help to anchor the actual rate of inflation below 2 per cent. One possibility being considered is an inflation make-up strategy. In other words, a period of below-target inflation rates would need to be matched by a period where inflation rates could exceed the 2 per cent target in order that the long-term average of 2 per cent is met.
An inflation make-up policy would work like forward guidance in that people and markets would know know that short-term interest rates would be kept lower for longer. This would then help to force longer-term interest rates lower as well as providing people and businesses with greater certainty that interest rates will be lower for longer. This could help to encourage spending, raise economic growth and prevent inflation from overshooting its target for any extensive period of time.
An inflation make-up strategy would, in part, help to cement the idea that the inflation target is effectively symmetrical and that 2 per cent is not an upper limit for the inflation rate. But, it would do more than that: it would allow the Fed to deliberately exceed the 2 per cent target.
An inflation make-up strategy does raise issues. For example, how would the Fed determine the magnitude of any inflation make-up and for how long would a looser monetary stance be allowed to operate? In other words, would an inflation make-up strategy be determined by a specific rule or formula? Or, would the principle be applied flexibly? Finally, could a simpler alternative be to raise the target rate itself, given the tendency to undershoot the 2 per cent target rate? If so, what should that the rate be?
We should know by the end of 2020 whether the Federal Reserve will adopt, when necessary, an inflation make-up monetary policy.
- What do you understand by the monetary policy mandate of a central bank?
- Explain the ways in which the monetary policy mandate of the central bank affects our everyday lives.
- Why are inflation-rate expectations important in determining actual inflation rates?
- Why is the Federal Reserve concerned about its ability to use monetary policy effectively during future economic downturns?
- Discuss the economic arguments for and against central banks operating strict inflation-rate targets.
- Does the case for adopting an inflation make-up monetary policy mandate show that the argument for inflation-rate targeting has been lost?
- What do you understand by the idea of a natural or neutral policy interest rate? Would the actual rate be expected to be above or below this if the rate of inflation was below its target level?
Growth in the eurozone has slowed. The European Central Bank (ECB) now expects it to be 1.1% this year; in December, it had forecast a rate of 1.7% for 2019. Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, in his press conference, said that ‘the weakening in economic data points to a sizeable moderation in the pace of the economic expansion that will extend into the current year’. Faced with a slowing eurozone economy, the ECB has announced further measures to stimulate economic growth.
First it has indicated that interest rates will not rise until next year at the earliest ‘and in any case for as long as necessary to ensure the continued sustained convergence of inflation to levels that are below, but close to, 2% over the medium term’. The ECB currently expects HIPC inflation to be 1.2% in 2019. It was expected to raise interest rates later this year – probably by the end of the summer. The ECB’s main refinancing interest rate, at which it provides liquidity to banks, has been zero since March 2016, and so there was no scope for lowering it.
Second, although quantitative easing (the asset purchase programme) is coming to an end, there will be no ‘quantitative tightening’. Instead, the ECB will purchase additional assets to replace any assets that mature, thereby leaving the stock of assets held the same. This would continue ‘for an extended period of time past the date when we start raising the key ECB interest rates, and in any case for as long as necessary to maintain favourable liquidity conditions and an ample degree of monetary accommodation’.
Third, the ECB is launching a new series of ‘quarterly targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO-III), starting in September 2019 and ending in March 2021, each with a maturity of two years’. These are low-interest loans to banks in the eurozone for use for specific lending to businesses and households (other than for mortgages) at below-market rates. Banks will be able to borrow up to 30% of their eligible assets (yet to be fully defined). These, as their acronym suggests, are the third round of such loans. The second round was relatively successful. As the Barron’s article linked below states:
Banks boosted their long-term borrowing from the ECB by 70% over the course of the program, although they did not manage to increase their holdings of business loans until after TLTRO II had finished disbursing funds in March 2017.
Whether these measures will be enough to raise growth rates in the eurozone depends on a range of external factors affecting aggregate demand. Draghi identified three factors which could have a negative effect.
- Brexit. The forecasts assume an orderly Brexit in accordance with the withdrawal deal agreed between the European Commission and the UK government. With the House of Commons having rejected this deal twice, even though it has agreed that there should not be a ‘no-deal Brexit’, this might happen as it is the legal default position. This could have a negative effect on the eurozone economy (as well as a significant one on the UK economy). Even an extension of Article 50 could create uncertainty, which would also have a negative effect
- Trade wars. If President Trump persists with his protectionist policy, this will have a negative effect on growth in the eurozone and elsewhere.
- China. Chinese growth has slowed and this dampens global growth. What is more, China is a major trading partner of the eurozone countries and hence slowing Chinese growth impacts on the eurozone through the international trade multiplier. The ECB has taken this into account, but if Chinese growth slows more than anticipated, this will further push down eurozone growth.
Then there are internal uncertainties in the eurozone, such as the political and economic uncertainty in Italy, which in December 2018 entered a recession (2 quarters of negative economic growth). Its budget deficit is rising and this is creating conflict with the European Commission. Also, there are likely to be growing tensions within Italy as the government raises taxes.
Faced with these and other uncertainties, the measures announced by Mario Draghi may turn out not to be enough. Perhaps in a few months’ there may have to be a further round of quantitative easing.
- ECB statement following policy meeting
Reuters, Larry King (7/3/19)
- European Central Bank acts to boost struggling eurozone
BBC News, Andrew Walker (7/3/19)
- The European Central Bank Tries to Avoid Repeating Past Mistakes
Barron’s, Matthew C. Klein (8/3/19)
- ECB pushes back rate hike plans, announces fresh funding for banks
CNBC, Silvia Amaro (7/3/19)
- Why the ECB Followed the Fed’s Flip-Flopping
Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (7/3/19)
- Central Banks Don’t Have the Answer and Markets Know It
Bloomberg, Robert Burgess (7/3/19)
- Missing out on monetary normalisation
OMFIF, David Marsh (12/4/19)
- The ECB is attempting to get ahead of event
Financial Times, The editorial board (8/3/19)
- Explainer: What is the fuss about European Central Bank TLTRO loans?
Reuters, Balazs Koranyi (4/3/19)
- Investigate the history of quantitative easing and its use by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB. What is the current position of the three central banks on ‘quantitative tightening’, whereby central banks sell some of the stock of assets they have purchased during the process of quantitative easing or not replace them when they mature?
- What are TLTROs and what use of them has been made by the ECB? Do they involve the creation of new money?
- What will determine the success of the proposed TLTRO III scheme?
- If the remit of central banks is to keep inflation on target, which in the ECB’s case means below 2% HIPC inflation but close to it over the medium term, why do people talk about central banks using monetary policy to revive a flagging economy?
- What is ‘forward guidance’ by central banks and what determines its affect on aggregate demand?
On 14 December, the US Federal Reserve announced that its 10-person Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) had unanimously decided to raise the Fed’s benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to a range of between 0.5% and 0.75%. This is the first rise since this time last year, which was the first rise for nearly 10 years.
The reasons for the rise are two-fold. The first is that the US economy continues to grow quite strongly, with unemployment edging downwards and confidence edging upwards. Although the rate of inflation is currently still below the 2% target, the FOMC expects inflation to rise to the target by 2018, even with the rate rise. As the Fed’s press release states:
Inflation is expected to rise to 2% over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.
The second reason for the rate rise is the possible fiscal policy stance of the new Trump administration. If, as expected, the new president adopts an expansionary fiscal policy, with tax cuts and increased government spending on infrastructure projects, this will stimulate the economy and put upward pressure on inflation. It could also mean that the Fed will raise interest rates again more quickly. Indeed, the FOMC indicated that it expects three rate rises in 2017 rather than the two it predicted in September.
However, just how much and when the Fed will raise interest rates again is highly uncertain. Future monetary policy measures will only become more predictable when Trump’s policies and their likely effects become clearer.
US Federal Reserve raises interest rates and flags quicker pace of tightening in 2017 Independent, Ben Chu (14/12/16)
US Federal Reserve raises interest rates: what happens next? The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (15/12/16)
Holiday traditions: The Fed finally manages to lift rates in 2016 The Economist (14/12/16)
US raises key interest rate by 0.25% on strengthening economy BBC News (14/12/16)
Fed Raises Key Interest Rate, Citing Strengthening Economy The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (14/12/16)
US dollar surges to 14-year high as Fed hints at three rate hikes in 2017 The Guardian, Martin Farrer and agencies (15/12/16)
- What determines the stance of US monetary policy?
- How does fiscal policy impact on market interest rates and monetary policy?
- What effect does a rise in interest rates have on exchange rates and the various parts of the balance of payments?
- What effect is a rise in US interest rates likely to have on other countries?
- What is meant by ‘forward guidance’ in the context of monetary policy? What are the benefits of providing forward guidance?
- What were the likely effects on the US stock market of the announcement by the FOMC?
- Following the FOMC announcement, two-year US Treasury bond yields rose to 1.231%, the highest since August 2009. Explain why.
- For what reason does the FOMC believe that the US economy is already expanding at roughly the maximum sustainable pace?
The US economy has been performing relatively well, but as with the UK economy, growth in the first quarter of 2015 has slowed. In the US, it has slowed to 0.2%, which is below expectations and said to be due to ‘transitory factors’. In response, the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates at a record low, within the band 0.0% to 0.25%.
The USA appears relatively unconcerned about the slower growth it is experiencing and expects growth to recover in the next quarter. The Fed said:
“Growth in household spending declined; households’ real incomes rose strongly, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices, and consumer sentiment remains high. Business fixed investment softened, the recovery in the housing sector remained slow, and exports declined.”
Nothing has been said as to when interest rates may rise and with this unexpected slowing of the economy, further delays are likely. An investment Manager from Aberdeen Asset Management said:
“The removal of the Fed’s time dependent forward guidance could be significant. It means that any meeting from now on could be the one when they announce that magic first rate rise.”
Low rates will provide optimal conditions for stimulating growth. A key instrument of monetary policy, interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand. Lower interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing, reduce the return on savings and hence encourage consumption. They can also reduce mortgage repayments and have a role in reducing the exchange rate. All of these factors are crucial for any economic stimulus.
Analysts are not expecting rates to rise in the June meeting and so attention has now turned to September as the likely time when interest rates will increase and finally reward savers. Any earlier increase in rates could spell trouble for economic growth and similar arguments can be made in the UK and across the eurozone. The following articles consider the US economy.
Federal Reserve keeps interest rates at record low BBC News, Kim Gittleson (29/4/15)
Shock stalling of US economy hits chances of early Fed rate rise The Guardian, Larry Elliott (29/4/15)
US Fed leave interest rates unchanged after poor GDP figures Independent, Andrew Dewson (30/4/15)
Fed could give clues on first interest rate hike USA Today, Paul Davidson (28/4/15)
Fed’s downgrade of economic outlook signals longer rate hike wait Reuters, Michael Flaherty and Howard Schneider (29/4/15)
Five things that stopped the Fed raising rates The Telegraph, Peter Spence (29/4/15)
- By outlining the key components of aggregate demand, explain the mechanisms by which interest rates will affect each component.
- How can inflation rates be affected by interest rates?
- Why could it be helpful for the Fed not to provide any forward guidance?
- What are the key factors behind the slowdown of growth in the USA? Do you agree that they are transitory factors?
- Who would be helped and harmed by a rate rise?
- Consider the main macroeconomic objectives and in each case, with respect to the current situation in the USA, explain whether economic theory would suggest that interest rates should (a) fall , (b) remain as they are, or (c) rise.
With the publication of the February 2014 Inflation Report the Bank of England has adjusted its forward guidance to the markets.
As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, the economy should soon fall below the 7% unemployment threshold adopted in the original forward guidance issued last August. But the Bank feels that there is still too much slack in the economy to raise interest rates when unemployment does fall below 7%.
The Bank has thus issued a new vaguer form of forward guidance.
The MPC’s view is that the economy currently has spare capacity equivalent to about 1%–1½% of GDP, concentrated in the labour market. Around half of that slack reflects the difference between the current unemployment rate of 7.1% and an estimate of its
medium-term equilibrium rate of 6%–6½%. The remaining slack largely reflects a judgement that employees would like to work more hours than is currently the case. Companies appear to be operating at close to normal levels of capacity, although this is subject to some uncertainty.
The existence of spare capacity in the economy is both wasteful and increases the risk that inflation will undershoot the target in the medium term. Moreover, recent developments in inflation mean that the near-term trade-off between keeping inflation close to the target and supporting output and employment is more favourable than at the time the MPC announced its guidance last August: CPI inflation has fallen back to the 2% target more quickly than anticipated and, with domestic costs well contained, is expected to remain at, or a little below, the target for the next few years. The MPC therefore judges that there remains scope to absorb spare capacity further before raising Bank Rate.
Just what will determine the timing and pace of tightening? The Bank identifies three factors: the sustainability of the recovery; the extent to which supply responds to demand; and the evolution of cost and price pressures. But there is considerable uncertainty about all of these.
Thus although this updated forward guidance suggests that interest rates will not be raised for some time to come, even when unemployment falls below 7%, it is not at all clear when a rise in Bank Rate is likely to be, and then how quickly and by how much Bank Rate will be raised over subsequent months. Partly this is because of the inevitable uncertainty about future developments in the economy, but partly this is because it is not clear just how the MPC will interpret developments.
So is this new vaguer forward guidance helpful? The following articles address this question.
Bank of England Governor Carney’s statement on forward guidance Reuters (12/2/14)
Why has Mark Carney tweaked forward guidance? The Telegraph, Denise Roland (12/2/14)
Interest rates: Carney rips up ‘forward guidance’ policy Channel 4 News (12/2/14)
Forward guidance version 2: will the public believe it? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/2/14)
Mark Carney adjusts Bank interest rate policy BBC News (12/2/14)
Mark Carney’s almost promise on rates BBC News, Robert Peston (12/2/14)
Did the Bank of England’s Forward Guidance work? Independent, Ben Chu (2/2/14)
Forward Guidance 2.0: Is Carney just digging with a larger shovel? Market Watch, The Tell (12/2/14)
The U.K. Economy: Five Key Takeaways Wall Street Journal, Alen Mattich (12/2/14)
Bank of England pages
Inflation Report, February 2014 Bank of England (12/2/14)
Monetary Policy Bank of England
MPC Remit Letters Bank of England
Forward Guidance Bank of England
- Summarize the new forward guidance given by the Bank of England.
- Why is credibility an important requirement for policy?
- What data would you need to have in order to identify the degree of economic slack in the economy?
- Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
- What is meant by the ‘output gap’? Would it be a good idea to target the output gap?
- Is it possible to target the rate of inflation and one or more other indicators at the same time? Explain.