Central Bankers under Siege

CHICAGO – Poor Ben Bernanke! As Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve Board, he has gone further than any other central banker in recent times in attempting to stimulate the economy through monetary policy. He has cut short-term interest rates to the bone. He has adopted innovative new methods of monetary easing. Again and again, he has repeated that, so long as inflationary pressure remains contained, his main concern is the high level of US unemployment. Yet progressive economists chastise him for not doing enough.

What more could they possibly want? Raise the inflation target, they say, and all will be well. Of course, this would be a radical departure for the Fed, which has worked hard to convince the public that it will keep inflation around 2%. That credibility has allowed the Fed to be aggressive: it is difficult to imagine that it could have expanded its balance sheet to the extent that it has if the public thought that it could not be trusted on inflation. So why do these economists want the Fed to sacrifice its hard-won gains?

The answer lies in their view of the root cause of continued high unemployment: excessively high real interest rates. Their logic is simple. Before the financial crisis erupted in 2008, consumers buoyed US demand by borrowing heavily against their rising house prices. Now these heavily indebted households cannot borrow and spend any more.

An important source of aggregate demand has evaporated. As consumers stopped buying, real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates should have fallen to encourage thrifty households to spend. But real interest rates did not fall enough, because nominal interest rates cannot go below zero. By increasing inflation, the Fed would turn real interest rates seriously negative, thereby coercing thrifty households into spending instead of saving. With rising demand, firms would hire, and all would be well.