The 4% Non-Solution

PARIS – For some time now, there has been concern that central bankers have “run out of bullets.” Having lowered their policy rates to near zero, they have engaged in increasingly extravagant measures such as “quantitative easing” and “forward guidance.” Given the fog cast over real economic activity by the financial crisis, it is difficult to offer a definitive assessment of just how well or badly those measures have worked. But it is clear that there must be a better way to do things.

There is no longer any reason to let the zero bound on nominal interest rates continue to hamper monetary policy. A simple and elegant solution is to phase in a switchover to a fully electronic currency, where paying interest, positive or negative, requires only the push of a button. And with paper money – particularly large-denomination notes – arguably doing more harm than good, currency modernization is long overdue. Using an electronic currency, central banks could continue to stabilize inflation exactly as they do now. (Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter, has suggested numerous ways to address the constraint of paper currency, but eliminating it is the easiest.)

A second, less elegant idea is to have central banks simply raise their target inflation rates from today’s norm of 2% to a higher but still moderate level of 4%. The idea of permanently raising inflation targets to 4% was first proposed in an interesting and insightful paper led by IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard, and has been endorsed by a number of other academics, including, most recently, Paul Krugman. Unfortunately, the problem of making a smooth and convincing transition to the new target is perhaps insurmountable.

When Blanchard first proposed his idea, I was intrigued but skeptical. Mind you, two years previously, at the outset of the financial crisis, I suggested raising inflation to 4% or more for a period of a few years to deflate the debt overhang and accelerate wage adjustment. But there is a world of difference between temporarily raising inflation to address a crisis and unhinging long-term expectations.