When it comes to the financial and economic future, everybody is myopic. Nobody can see clearly. That includes the Federal Reserve.
As François Villeroy de Galhau, the Governor of the Bank of France, recently said in a brilliant talk, central banks are subject to four uncertainties. These are, in my paraphrased summary:
1) They don’t really know where we are.
2) They don’t know where we are going.
3) They are affected by what other people are going to do, but don’t know what others will do.
4) They know there are underlying structural changes going on, but don’t know what they are or what effects they will have.
Yet it appears that central banks usually feel the urge to pretend to know more than they can, in order to inspire “confidence” in themselves, and to try to manage expectations, while they go on making judgments subject to a lot of uncertainty, otherwise known as guesses.
A refreshing exception to this pretense was the speech Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell gave in last August at the annual Jackson Hole symposium, 2018. He reviewed three key “stars” in monetary policy models: u* (“u-star),” r* (“r-star”) and ϖ (“pi-star,”), which are respectively the “natural rate of unemployment,” the “neutral rate of interest,” and the right rate of inflation. None of these are observable and all are of necessity theoretical, so in a clever metaphor, Powell candidly pointed out that these supposedly navigational stars are actually “shifting stars.” Bravo, Mr. Chairman!
Let’s consider this question: What does the Fed know that nobody else knows? Nothing.
Can the Fed know what the right rate of inflation is? No. Of course, it can guess. It can set a “target” of steady depreciation of the dollar at 2% per year in perpetuity. Can it know what the long-term results of this strategy will be? No.
Moreover, nobody knows or can know what the right interest rate is. That includes the Fed (and the President). Interest rates are prices, and government committees, like the Federal Open Market Committee, cannot know what prices should be. That (among many other reasons) is why we have markets.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article by James Mackintosh, “Fed Is Shifting the Goal Posts, and Investors Should Care.” With shifting goalposts or shifting stars, the Fed cannot know where they should be, but investors should and do indeed care very much about what the Fed thinks and does.
This is because, as we all know, the Fed’s actions or inaction, and also, financial actors’ beliefs about future Fed actions or inaction, can and do move prices of stocks and bonds substantially. Indeed, the more financial actors believe that Fed actions will move asset prices, the more it will be true that they do.
Mackintosh discusses whether the Fed’s inflation target will become “symmetric”—that is, the target would change into an average of periods both over it and under it, rather than a simple goal. Thus, sometimes “inflation above 2% is as acceptable as inflation below 2%.” Ah, the old temptation of governments to further depreciate the currency never fades for long.
“Goldman Sachs thinks the emphasis on symmetry in the inflation target is already influencing long-dated bonds,” the article reports, and opines that the change could have “big implications for markets,” that is, for asset prices. That seems right.
But the 2 percent inflation, whether as an average or as a simple goal, “isn’t up for debate.” Why not? The Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978, the same act that gave the Fed the so-called “dual mandate” which it endlessly cites, also set a long-term goal of zero inflation. What does the Fed think about that provision of the laws of the United States?
A true sound money regime has goods and services prices which average about flat over the long term. But being prices, they do fluctuate around their stable trend. The Fed, like other central banks, is in contrast committed to prices which rise always and forever. Discussing which of these two regimes we should want would focus consideration on where the goalposts should be.
Mackintosh worries that there may be a “loss of faith in the Fed’s ability.” On the contrary, I think a lack of faith in the Fed’s ability is rational, desirable, and wise.