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The Perils of Fed Gradualism

NEW HAVEN – By now, it’s an all-too-familiar drill. After an extended period of extraordinary monetary accommodation, the US Federal Reserve has begun the long march back to normalization. It has now taken the first step toward returning its benchmark policy interest rate – the federal funds rate – to a level that imparts neither stimulus nor restraint to the US economy.

A majority of financial market participants applaud this strategy. In fact, it is a dangerous mistake. The Fed is borrowing a page from the script of its last normalization campaign – the incremental rate hikes of 2004-2006 that followed the extraordinary accommodation of 2001-2003. Just as that earlier gradualism set the stage for a devastating financial crisis and a horrific recession in 2008-2009, there is mounting risk of yet another accident on what promises to be an even longer road to normalization.

The problem arises because the Fed, like other major central banks, has now become a creature of financial markets rather than a steward of the real economy. This transformation has been under way since the late 1980s, when monetary discipline broke the back of inflation and the Fed was faced with new challenges.

The challenges of the post-inflation era came to a head during Alan Greenspan’s 18-and-a-half-year tenure as Fed Chair. The stock-market crash of October 19, 1987 – occurring only 69 days after Greenspan had been sworn in – provided a hint of what was to come. In response to a one-day 23% plunge in US equity prices, the Fed moved aggressively to support the brokerage system and purchase government securities.