In the current environment of low inflation and rising unemployment, the Federal Reserve Bank, the USA’s central bank, has amended its monetary targets. The new measures were announced by the Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech for the annual Jackson Hole central bankers’ symposium (this year conducted online on August 27 and 28). The symposium was an opportunity for central bankers to reflect on their responses to the coronavirus pandemic and to consider what changes might need to be made to their monetary policy targets and instruments.
The Fed’s previous targets
Previously, like most other central banks, the Fed had a long-run inflation target of 2%. It did, however, also seek to ‘maximise employment’. In practice, this meant seeking to achieve a ‘normal’ rate of unemployment, which the Fed regards as ranging from 3.5 to 4.7% with a median value of 4.1%. The description of its objectives stated that:
In setting monetary policy, the Committee seeks to mitigate deviations of inflation from its longer-run goal and deviations of employment from the Committee’s assessments of its maximum level. These objectives are generally complementary. However, under circumstances in which the Committee judges that the objectives are not complementary, it follows a balanced approach in promoting them, taking into account the magnitude of the deviations and the potentially different time horizons over which employment and inflation are projected to return to levels judged consistent with its mandate.
The new targets
Under the new system, the Fed has softened its inflation target. It will still be 2% over the longer term, but it will be regarded as an average, rather than a firm target. The Fed will be willing to see inflation above 2% for longer than previously before raising interest rates if this is felt necessary for the economy to recover and to achieve its long-run potential economic growth rate. Fed chair, Jay Powell, in a speech on 27 August said:
Following periods when inflation has been running below 2%, appropriate monetary policy will likely aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 per cent for some time.
Additionally, the Fed has increased its emphasis on employment. Instead of focusing on deviations from normal employment, the Fed will now focus on the shortfall of employment from its normal level and not be concerned if employment temporarily exceeds its normal level. As Powell said:
Going forward, employment can run at or above real-time estimates of its maximum level without causing concern, unless accompanied by signs of unwanted increases in inflation or the emergence of other risks that could impede the attainment of our goals
The Fed will also take account of the distribution of employment and pay more attention to achieving a strong labour market in low-income and disadvantaged communities. However, apart from the benefits to such communities from a generally strong labour market, it is not clear how the Fed could focus on disadvantaged communities through the instruments it has at its disposal – interest rate changes and quantitative easing.
Modern monetary theorists (see blog MMT – a Magic Money Tree or Modern Monetary Theory?) will welcome the changes, arguing that they will allow more aggressive expansion and higher government borrowing at ultra-low interest rates.
The problem for the Fed is that it is attempting to achieve more aggressive goals without having any more than the two monetary instruments it currently has – lowering interest rates and increasing money supply through asset purchases (quantitative easing). Interest rates are already near rock bottom and further quantitative easing may continue to inflate asset prices (such as share and property prices) without sufficiently stimulating aggregate demand. Changing targets without changing the means of achieving them is likely to be unsuccessful.
It remains to be seen whether the Fed will move to funding government borrowing directly, which could allow for a huge stimulus through infrastructure spending, or whether it will merely stick to using asset purchases as a way for introducing new money into the system.
- In landmark shift, Fed rewrites approach to inflation, labor market
Reuters, Jonnelle Marte, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider (27/8/20)
- 5 Key Takeaways From Powell’s Jackson Hole Fed Speech
Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (28/8/20)
- Fed adopts new strategy to allow higher inflation and welcome strong labor markets
Market Watch, Greg Robb (27/8/20)
- Fed to tolerate higher inflation in policy shift
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (27/8/20)
- Fed inflation shift raises questions about past rate rises
Financial Times, James Politi and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Dollar slides as bond market signals rising inflation angst
Financial Times, Adam Samson and Colby Smith (28/8/20)
- Wall Street shares rise after Fed announces soft approach to inflation
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (27/8/20)
- How the Fed Is Bringing an Inflation Debate to a Boil
Bloomberg, Ben Holland, Enda Curran, Vivien Lou Chen and Kyoungwha Kim (27/8/20)
- The live now, pay later economy comes at a heavy cost for us all
The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/8/20)
- The world’s central banks are starting to experiment. But what comes next?
The Guardian, Adam Tooze (9/9/20)
- Find out how much asset purchases by the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB have increased in the current rounds of quantitative easing.
- How do asset purchases affect narrow money, broad money and aggregate demand? Is there a fixed money multiplier effect between the narrow money increases and aggregate demand? Explain.
- Why did the dollar exchange rate fall following the announcement of the new measures by Jay Powell?
- The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, also gave a speech at the Jackson Hole symposium. How does the approach to money policy outlined by Bailey differ from that outlined by Jay Powell?
- What practical steps, if any, could a central bank take to improve the relative employment prospects of disadvantaged groups?
- Outline the arguments for and against central banks directly funding government expenditure through money creation.
- What longer-term problems are likely to arise from central banks pursuing ultra-low interest rates for an extended period of time?
‘There is no magic money tree’, said Theresa May on several occasions during the 2017 election campaign. The statement was used to justify austerity policies and to criticise calls for increased government expenditure.
But, in one sense, money is indeed fruit of the magic money tree. There is no fixed stock of money, geared to the stock of gold or some other commodity. Money is created – as if by magic. And most of broad money is not created by government or the central bank. Rather it is created by banks as they use deposits as the basis for granting loans, which become money as they are redeposited in the banking system. Banks are doing this magic all the time – creating more and more money trees as the forest grows. As the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin explains:
Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.
However, most of the country’s MPs are unaware of this process of money creation. As the linked Guardian article below states:
Responding to a survey commissioned by Positive Money just before the June election, 85% were unaware that new money was created every time a commercial bank extended a loan, while 70% thought that only the government had the power to create new money.
And yet the role of money and monetary policy is central to many debates in Parliament about the economy. It is disturbing to think that policy debates could be based on misunderstanding. Perhaps MPs would do well to study basic monetary economics! After all, credit creation is not a difficult topic.
Positive Money poll
- Do central banks create money and, if so, what form(s) does it take?
- Explain how credit creation works.
- What determines the amount of credit that banks create?
- How can the central bank influence the amount of credit created?
- Distinguish between narrow and broad money supply.
- What is the relationship between government spending and broad money supply (M4 in the UK)?
- Why is there no simple money multiplier whereby total broad money supply is a simple and predictable multiple of narrow money?
- What determines the relationship between money supply and real output?
- Does it matter what type of lending is financed by money creation?
- Comment on the statement: “The argument marshalled against social investment such as education, welfare and public services, that it is unaffordable because there is no magic money tree, is nonsensical.”
- Could quantitative easing be used to finance social investment? Would there be any dangers in the process?
The US Federal Reserve, like many other central banks, engaged in massive quantitative easing in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/8. Over three rounds, QE1, QE2 and QE3, it accumulated $4.5 trillion of assets – mainly government bonds and mortgage-backed securities (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). But, unlike its counterparts in the UK, the eurozone and Japan, it has long ceased its programme of asset purchases.. In October 2014, it announced that QE was at an end. All that would be done in future would be to replace existing holdings of assets as they matured, keeping total holdings roughly constant.
But now this policy is set to change. The Fed is about to embark on a programme of ‘quantitative tightening’, already being dubbed ‘QT’. This involves the Fed reducing its holdings of assets, mainly government bonds and government-backed mortgage-related securities.
This, however, for the time being will not include selling its holding of bonds or mortgage-backed securities. Rather, it will simply mean not buying new assets to replace ones when they mature, or only replacing part of the them. This was discussed by the 75 participants at the joint meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and Board of Governors on 14–15 March.
As the minutes put it: “Many participants emphasized that reducing the size of the balance sheet should be conducted in a passive and predictable manner.”
A more active form of QT would involve selling assets before maturity and thus reducing the size of the Fed’s balance sheet more rapidly. But either way, reducing assets would put downward pressure on the money supply and support the higher interest rates planned by the FOMC.
The question is whether there is enough liquidity elsewhere in the system and enough demand for credit, and willingness of the banking system to supply credit, to allow a sufficient growth in broad money – sufficient, that is, to support continued growth in the economy. The answer to that question depends on confidence. The Fed, not surprisingly, is keen not to damage confidence and hence prefers a gradualist approach to reducing its holdings of assets bought during the various rounds of quantitative easing.
Fed’s asset shift to pose new test of economy’s recovery, resilience Reuters, Howard Schneider and Richard Leong (6/4/17)
Federal Reserve likely to begin cutting back $4.5 trillion balance sheet this year Washington Post, Ana Swanson (5/4/17)
Why the Fed’s debate about shrinking its balance sheet really, really matters Money Observer, Russ Mould (7/4/17)
The Fed and ECB keep a cautious eye on the exit Financial Times (7/4/17)
Get ready for the Fed’s next scary policy change CBS Money Watch, Anthony Mirhaydari (5/4/17)
The Fed wants to start shrinking its $4.5 trillion balance sheet later this year Business Insider, Akin Oyedele (5/4/17)
Inside the Fed’s March Meeting: The Annotated Minutes Bloomberg, Luke Kawa, Matthew Boesler and Alex Harris (5/4/17)
QE was great for asset prices – will ‘QT’ smash them? The Financial Review (Australia), Patrick Commins (7/4/17)
Shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet Brookings, Ben Bernanke (26/1/17)
Selected data Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
- Distinguish between active and passive QT.
- If QE is a form of expansionary monetary policy, is QT a form of contractionary monetary policy?
- Could QT take place alongside an expansion of broad money?
- What dangers lie in the Fed scaling back its holdings of government (Treasury) bonds and mortgage-backed securities?
- Why is it unlikely that the Fed will reduce its holdings of securities to pre-crisis levels?
- Why are the Bank of England, the ECB and the Bank of Japan still pursuing a policy of QE?
- What are the implications for exchange rates of QT in the USA and QE elsewhere?
- Find out data for the monetary base, for narrow money (M1) and broader money (M2) in the USA. Are narrow and/or broad money correlated with Federal Reserve asset holdings?
Seven years ago (on 5 March 2009), the Bank of England reduced interest rates to a record low of 0.5%. This was in response to a deepening recession. It mirrored action taken by other central banks across the world as they all sought to stimulate their economies, which were reeling from the financial crisis.
Record low interest rates, combined with expansionary fiscal policy, were hoped to be enough to restore rates of growth to levels experienced before the crisis. But they weren’t. One by one countries increased narrow money through bouts of quantitative easing.
But as worries grew about higher government deficits, brought about by the expansionary fiscal policies and by falling tax receipts as incomes and spending fell, so fiscal policy became progressively tighter. Thus more and more emphasis was put on monetary policy as the means of stimulating aggregate demand and boosting economic growth.
Ultra low interest rates and QE were no longer a short-term measure. They persisted as growth rates remained sluggish. The problem was that the higher narrow money supply was not leading to the hoped-for credit creation and growth in consumption and investment. The extra money was being used for buying assets, such as shares and houses, not being spent on goods, services, plant and equipment. The money multiplier fell dramatically in many countries (see chart 1 for the case of the UK: click here for a PowerPoint) and there was virtually no growth in credit creation. Broad money in the UK (M4) has actually fallen since 2008 (see chart 2: click here for a PowerPoint), as it has in various other countries.
Additional monetary measures were put in place, including various schemes to provide money to banks for direct lending to companies or individuals. Central banks increasingly resorted to zero or negative interest rates paid to banks for deposits: see the blog posts Down down deeper and down, or a new Status Quo? and When a piggy bank pays a better rate. But still bank lending has stubbornly failed to take off.
Some indication that the ’emergency’ was coming to an end occurred in December 2015 when the US Federal Reserve raised interest rates by 0.25 percentage points. However, many commentators felt that that was too soon, especially in the light of slowing Chinese economic growth. Indeed, the Chinese authorities themselves have been engaging in a large scale QE programme and other measures to arrest this fall in growth.
Although it cut interest rates in 2009 (to 1% by May 2009), the ECB was more cautious than other central banks in the first few years after 2008 and even raised interest rates in 2011 (to 1.5% by July of that year). However, more recently it has been more aggressive in its monetary policy. It has progressively cut interest rates (see chart 3: click here for a PowerPoint) and announced in January 2015 that it was introducing a programme of QE, involving €60 billion of asset purchases for at least 18 months from March 2015. In December 2015, it announced that it would extend this programme for another six months.
The latest move by the ECB was on March 10, when it took three further sets of measures to boost the flagging eurozone economy. It cut interest rates, including cutting the deposit rate paid to banks from –0.3% to –0.4% and the main refinancing rate from –0.05% to –0%; it increased its monthly quantitative easing from €60 billion to €80 billion; and it announced unlimited four-year loans to banks at near-zero interest rates.
It would seem that the emergency continues!
QE, inflation and the BoE’s unreliable boyfriend: seven years of record low rates The Guardian, Katie Allen (5/3/16)
The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy by Mervyn King – review The Observer, John Kampfner (14/3/16)
How ‘negative interest rates’ marked the end of central bank dominance The Telegraph, Peter Spence (21/2/16)
ECB stimulus surprise sends stock markets sliding BBC News (10/3/16)
5 Takeaways From the ECB Meeting The Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (10/3/16)
ECB cuts interest rates to zero amid fears of fresh economic crash The Guardian, Katie Allen and Jill Treanor (10/3/16)
Economists mixed on ECB stimulus CNBC, Elizabeth Schulze (10/3/16)
ECB’s Draghi plays his last card to stave off deflation The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (10/3/16)
ECB cuts rates to new low and expands QE Financial Times, Claire Jones (10/3/16)
Is QE a saviour, necessary evil or the road to perdition? The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (20/3/16)
Monetary policy decisions ECB Press Release (10/3/16)
Introductory statement to the press conference (with Q&A) ECB Press Conference, Mario Draghi and Vítor Constâncio (10/3/16)
ECB Press Conference webcast ECB, Mario Draghi
- What are meant by narrow and broad money?
- What is the relationship between narrow and broad money? What determines the amount that broad money will increase when narrow money increases?
- Explain what is meant by (a) the credit multiplier and (b) the money multiplier.
- Explain how the process of quantitative easing is supposed to result in an increase in aggregate demand. How reliable is this mechanism?
- Find out and explain what happened to the euro/dollar exchange rate when Mario Draghi made the announcement of the ECB’s monetary measures on 10 March.
- Is there a conflict for central banks between trying to strengthen banks’ liquidity and reserves and trying to stimulate bank lending? Explain.
- Why are “the ECB’s policies likely to destroy half of Germany’s 1500 savings and co-operative banks over the next five years”? (See the Telegraph article.
- What are the disadvantages of quantitative easing?
- What are the arguments for and against backing up monetary policy with expansionary fiscal policy? Consider different forms that this fiscal policy might take.
With the UK and eurozone economies in recession and with business and consumer confidence low, the Bank of England and the ECB have sprung into action.
The ECB has cut its main refinancing rate from 1% to an all-time low of 0.75%. Meanwhile, the Bank of England has embarked on a further round of quantitative easing (QE). The MPC voted to inject a further £50 billion through its asset purchase scheme, bring the total to £375 billion since QE began in March 2009.
And it is not just in Europe that monetary policy is being eased. In Australia and China interest rates have been cut. In the USA, there have been further asset purchases by the Fed and it is expected that the Japanese central bank will cut rates very soon, along with those in Korea, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
But with consumers seeming reluctant to spend and businesses being reluctant to invest, will the new money in the UK and elsewhere actually be lent and spent? Or will it simply sit in banks, boosting their liquidity base, but doing little if anything to boost aggregate demand?
And likewise in the eurozone, will a 25 basis point reduction in interest rates (i.e. a 0.25 percentage point reduction) do anything to boost borrowing and spending?
It is like pushing on a string – a term used by Keynesians to refer to the futile nature of monetary policy when people are reluctant to spend. Indeed the evidence over the past few years since QE started is that despite narrow money having risen massively, M4 lending has declined (see chart).
For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here.
The following articles look at the conundrum
Draghi-King Push May Mean Bigger Step Into Zero-Rate Era BloombergBusinessweek, Simon Kennedy (4/7/12)
QE and rate cut as central banks play stimulus card Independent, Ben Chu (6/7/12)
QE is welcome, but not enough Independent, Leader (6/7/12)
Interest rates cut to spur growth China Daily, Wang Xiaotian, Ding Qingfen and Gao Changxin (6/7/12)
Rate cuts shake global confidence Sydney Morning Herald, Eric Johnston, Clancy Yeates and Peter Cai (7/7/12)
Global Policy Easing Presses Asia to Cut Rates BloombergBusinessweek, Sharon Chen and Justina Lee (6/7/12)
Economic slowdown raises alarm in China, Europe Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (5/7/12)
Bank of England sets sail with QE3 BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/7/12)
The twilight of the central banker The Economist (26/6/12)
The case for truly bold monetary policy Financial Times, Martin Wolf (28/6/12)
- Is the world economy in a liquidity trap?
- What advice would you give politicians around the world seeking to boost consumer and business confidence?
- Are we witnessing “The twilight of the central banker”? (See The Economist article above.)
- Explain the following extracts from the Martin Wolf article: “In a monetary system, based on fiat (or man-made) money, the state guarantees the money supply in the interests of the public. In normal times, however, actual supply is a byproduct of lending activities of banks. It is, in brief, the product of privately operated printing presses… In the last resort, the power to create money rests properly with the state. When private sector supply is diminishing, as now, the state not only can, but should, step in, with real urgency.”
- Should monetary policy in the UK be combined with fiscal policy in providing a stimulus at a time when the government can borrow ultra cheaply from the Bank of England? Does this apply to other governments around the world?
- Why did Asian share prices fall despite the stimulus?