The Chinese Economy and Fed Policy

CAMBRIDGE – Janet Yellen’s speech on September 24 at the University of Massachusetts clearly indicated that she and the majority of the members of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee intend to raise the short-term interest rate by the end of 2015. It was particularly important that she explicitly included her own view, unlike when she spoke on behalf of the entire FOMC after its September meeting. Nonetheless, given the Fed’s recent history of revising its policy position, markets remain skeptical about the likelihood of a rate increase this year.

The Fed had been saying for several months that it would raise the federal funds rate when the labor market approached full employment and when FOMC members could anticipate that annual inflation would reach 2%. But, although both conditions were met earlier in September, the FOMC decided to leave the rate unchanged, explaining that it was concerned about global economic conditions and about events in China in particular.

I was unconvinced. I have believed for some months that the Fed should start tightening monetary policy to reduce the risks of financial instability caused by the behavior of investors and lenders in response to the prolonged period of exceptionally low interest rates since the 2008 financial crisis. Events in China are no reason for further delay.

Consider, first, domestic economic conditions, starting with the employment picture. By the time the FOMC met on September 16, the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.1%, the level that the Fed had earlier identified as full employment. Although there are still people who cannot find full-time jobs, driving the unemployment rate below 5.1% would, according to the Fed, eventually lead to unwanted increases in inflation.