The Fed’s Communication Breakdown

CAMBRIDGE – Nothing describes the United States Federal Reserve’s current communication policy better than the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Various members of the Fed’s policy-setting Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) have called the decision to keep the base rate unchanged “data-dependent.” That sounds helpful until you realize that each of them seems to have a different interpretation of “data-dependent,” to the point that its meaning seems to be “gut personal instinct.”

In other words, the Fed’s communication strategy is a mess, and cleaning it up is far more important than the exact timing of the FOMC’s decision to exit near-zero interest rates. After all, even after the Fed does finally make the “gigantic” leap from an effective federal funds rate of 0.13% (where it is now) to 0.25% (where is likely headed soon), the market will still want to know what the strategy is after that. And I fear that we will continue to have no idea.

To be fair, deciding what to do is a very tough call, and economists are deeply divided on the matter. The International Monetary Fund has weighed in forcefully, calling on the Fed to wait longer before raising rates. And yet central bankers in the very emerging markets that the IMF is supposedly protecting have been sending an equally forceful message: Get on with it; the uncertainty is killing us.

Personally, I would probably err on the side of waiting longer and accept the very high risk that, when inflation does rise, it will do so briskly, requiring a steeper path of interest-rate hikes later. But if the Fed goes that route, it needs to say clearly that it is deliberately risking an inflation overshoot. The case for waiting is that we really have no idea of what the equilibrium real (inflation-adjusted) policy interest rate is right now, and as such, need a clear signal on price growth before moving.