Charles Plosser, the President of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank gave a speech in Chile over the weekend titled The Scope and Responsibilities of Monetary Policy. Mr. Plosser is one of the few Federal Reserve Board members that seems to understand or at least acknowledge that monetary policy has limits. Below are some highlights from the Speech. The emphasis is mine. You can read the entire speech here.
…I would like to begin with a quote that some of you may recognize.
“…we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and, as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.”
Milton Friedman spoke these words in his presidential address before the 80th meeting of the American Economic Association in 1967. Although that was over 40 years ago, I believe Friedman’s caution is one well worth remembering, especially in this world where central banks have taken extraordinary actions in response to a financial crisis and severe recession.
We learned the dangers inherent in monetary policies that take low inflation for granted in a world of high unemployment or perceived large output gaps. Our experiences clearly showed that efforts to manage or stabilize the real economy in the short term were beyond the scope of monetary policy, and if policymakers made aggressive attempts to do so, it would undermine the one contribution monetary policy could and should make to economic stability — price stability.
The following paragraph is vital to understanding the trouble with current Fed policy.
Most economists now understand that in the long run, monetary policy determines only the level of prices and not the unemployment rate or other real variables. In this sense, it is monetary policy that has ultimate responsibility for the purchasing power of a nation’s fiat currency. Employment depends on many other more important factors, such as demographics, productivity, tax policy, and labor laws. Nevertheless, monetary policy can sometimes temporarily stimulate real economic activity in the short run, albeit with considerable uncertainty as to the timing and magnitude, what economists call the “long and variable lag.” Any boost to the real economy from stimulative monetary policy will eventually fade away as prices rise and the purchasing power of money erodes in response to the policy. Even the temporary benefit can be mitigated, or completely negated, if inflation expectations rise in reaction to the monetary accommodation.
Nonetheless, the notion persists that activist monetary policy can help stabilize the macroeconomy against a wide array of shocks, such as a sharp rise in the price of oil or a sharp drop in the price of housing. In my view, monetary policy’s ability to neutralize the real economic consequences of such shocks is actually quite limited. Successfully implementing such an economic stabilization policy requires predicting the state of the economy more than a year in advance and anticipating the nature, timing, and likely impact of future shocks. The truth is that economists simply do not possess the knowledge to make such forecasts with the degree of precision that would be needed to offset the economic shocks. Attempts to stabilize the economy will, more likely than not, end up providing stimulus when none is needed, or vice versa. It also risks distorting price signals and thus resource allocations, adding to instability. So asking monetary policy to do what it cannot do with aggressive attempts at stabilization can actually increase economic instability rather than reduce it.
Therefore, in most cases the effects of shocks to the economy simply have to play out over time as markets adjust to a new equilibrium. Monetary policy is likely to have little ability to hasten that adjustment. In fact, policy actions could actually make things worse over time. For example, monetary policy cannot retrain a workforce or help reallocate jobs to lower unemployment. It cannot help keep gasoline prices at low levels when the price of crude oil rises to high levels. And monetary policy cannot reverse the sharp decline in house prices when the economy has significantly over-invested in housing. In all of these cases, monetary policy cannot eliminate the need for households or businesses to make the necessary real adjustments when such shocks occur.
Although it has been over 40 years since Milton Friedman cautioned against asking too much of monetary policy, his insights remain particularly relevant today. I too am concerned that we are in the process of assigning to monetary policy goals that it cannot hope to achieve. Monetary policy is not going to be able to speed up the adjustments in labor markets or prevent asset bubbles, and attempts to do so may create more instability, not less. Nor should monetary policy be asked to perform credit allocation in support of particular sectors or firms. Expecting too much of monetary policy will undermine its ability to achieve the one thing that it is well-designed to do: ensuring long-term price stability. It is by achieving this goal that monetary policy is best able to support full employment and sustainable growth over the longer term, which benefits all in society.
Jeremy Jones, CFA
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