Martin Feldstein interviewed Paul Volcker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 10, 2013, as part of a conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research on “The First 100 Years of the Federal Reserve: The Policy Record, Lessons Learned, and Prospects for the Future.” Volcker was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System from 1979 through 1987. Before that, he served stints as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1975 to 1979, as Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs in the US Department of the Treasury from 1969 to 1974, as Deputy Undersecretary for Monetary Affairs in the Treasury from 1963 – 65, and as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1952 to 1957. During the interludes from public service, he held various positions at Chase Manhattan Bank. He has led and served on a wide array of commissions, including chairing the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board from its inception in 2009 through 2011.
There are striking parallels between the dramatic recent sell-off in U.S. Treasuries and the Great Bond Crash of 1994. But the summer of volatility now facing financial markets is no doomsday scenario. Instead, it puts the U.S. Federal Reserve in a bind. Higher interest rates will reduce housing affordability, which is especially troublesome since housing is the primary locomotive of U.S. economic growth. That means the Fed, despite Ben Bernanke’s recently announced timetable, may be forced to expand or extend quantitative easing if the housing market’s response to recent events becomes more acute and starts to negatively affect the job market recovery.
And as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fisher helps make the money go round. Meet the Fed’s most unlikely central banker. ... Fisher, it quickly became clear, also had a knack for colorful anecdotes, which he often drew from time spent on his ranch, in East Texas (the family leases out most of the grazing land but keeps a few dozen Longhorns for breeding purposes and rhetorical flair). A good example of this comes from a speech Fisher gave last year, in which he explained to a group of North Texas businessmen and women that his breeding bull, Too Big to Fail, has “plenty of liquidity at his disposal” but that the bull couldn’t do his job if there was a fence between him and the cows. American businesses, he continued, are faced with a fence of their own—a “fence of uncertainty.” The talk got a mixed reception. “Some people in Washington were aghast,” he told me later, but he had received a nice message from one of the cattle ranchers in the audience, who said that for the first time he understood monetary policy.
- The Fed is sending a message that the unwinding of its extraordinary accommodation will be done with great care and patience, and will take time – a long time.
- In delaying a taper, not only did the Fed show markets it has little tolerance for any tightening of financial conditions, it also strengthened its forward guidance considerably.
- The Fed’s decision to delay a taper will likely relieve some of the upward pressure on longer-term interest rates.
In 1948, the behaviorist B.F. Skinner reported an experiment in which pigeons were presented with food at fixed intervals, with no relationship to any given pigeon’s behavior. Despite that lack of relationship, most of the pigeons developed distinct superstitious rituals and maneuvers, apparently believing that these actions resulted in food. As Skinner reported, “Their appearance as the result of accidental correlations with the presentation of the stimulus is unmistakable.” ... Superstition is a by-product of the search for patterns between events – usually occurring in close proximity. This kind of search for patterns is essential for the continuation of a species, but it also lends itself to false beliefs. As Foster and Kokko (2009) put it, “The inability of individuals – human or otherwise – to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them… will often force them to make many incorrect causal associations, in order to establish those that are essential for survival.” ... The ability to infer cause and effect, based on the frequency with which one event co-occurs with some other event, is called “adaptive” or “Bayesian” learning. Humans, pigeons, and many animals have this ability to learn relationships in their world. Still, one thing that separates humans from animals is the ability to evaluate whether there is really any actual mechanistic link between cause and effect. When we stop looking for those links, and believe that one thing causes another because “it just does” – we give up the benefits of human intelligence and exchange them for the reflexive impulses of lemmings, sheep, and pigeons.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen is widely viewed as a dovish central banker, but she is about to lead her institution into a prolonged campaign of raising the policy interest rate. Starting now is a tactical decision on Yellen’s part to achieve her longer-run strategic aim. Hiking the funds rate, even as economic growth disappoints and inflation remains subdued, buys Yellen the credibility with her colleagues and market participants to subsequently tighten slowly. Thus, US monetary policy will remain accommodative for a considerable period. ... That Yellen may go down in central banking history as “The Great Tightener” appears to pose more than a little irony, perhaps to the coming surprise and irritation of Senate Democrats who signed a letter to the president endorsing her Fed-chair candidacy in 2013. Yet, the shift in policy does not reflect a transformation of her beliefs, but rather their pursuit by different means. Tightening now follows logically from Yellen’s understanding of the economic outlook and the dynamics of the Fed’s policymaking group, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). Hiking the funds rate, even as economic growth disappoints and inflation remains subdued, buys Yellen the credibility with her colleagues and market participants to subsequently tighten slowly. That is, Yellen positions herself now as a conservative central banker to ensure that she can be a compassionate one later by allowing Fed policy to remain considerably accommodative for a considerable time. ... An important ongoing conversation is in our future: who is right about rates in the long run, the Fed or investors?
June Gloom, the fog and clouds that often linger here over the Southern California coast this time of year, appears to have spread to the Federal Reserve. ... We agree that QE must end. It has distorted incentives and inflated asset prices to artificial levels. But we think the Fed’s plan may be too hasty. ... Fog may be obscuring the Fed’s view of the economy – in particular, the structural impediments that will inhibit its ability to achieve higher growth and inflation. Mr. Bernanke said the Fed expects the unemployment rate to fall to about 7% by the middle of next year. However, we think this is a long shot. ... Mr. Bernanke’s remarks indicated that the Fed is taking a cyclical view of the economy. ... Our view of the economy places greater emphasis on structural factors. Wages continue to be dampened by globalization. Demographic trends, notably the aging of our society and the retirement of the Baby Boomers, will lead to a lower level of consumer demand. And then there’s the race against the machine; technology continues to eliminate jobs as opposed to provide them. ... It’s reasonable, of course, for Mr. Bernanke to try to prepare markets for the inevitable and necessary wind down of QE. But if he has to wave a white flag three months from now and say, “Sorry, we miscalculated,” the trust of markets and dampened volatility that has driven markets over the past two or three years could probably never be fully regained. It would take even longer for the fog over the economy to lift.
The New Normal is when plain logic no longer applies; when common sense takes the back seat. I have for a long time been defending the Federal Reserve Bank, and have not at all agreed with all those hawks who thought the Fed was sitting on its hands. Until recently, I felt very comfortable taking that view, but I am no longer so sure. Common sense suggests to me that the Fed ought to tighten a great deal more than they have already done, but does common sense apply? That is what this month’s Absolute Return Letter is about. ... something is not quite right, but what is it? Before I answer that question, let me share one more observation with you. Because the Fed is so inactive, there are signs of moral hazard growing in magnitude. Complacency appears to be sneaking in through the back door yet again. We humans never learn, do we? ... As GDP growth slows, more debt needs to be established in order to service existing debt, which will cause GDP growth to slow even further. I therefore think that, unless it suddenly becomes fashionable to default, debt will continue to rise and GDP growth will continue to slow in the years to come. ... I have changed my view in one important aspect. As debt levels continue to rise (short of any massive debt restructuring), governments will bend over backwards to keep interest rates at very low levels, as the only realistic alternative to low interest rates is default. ... Historically, when central banks have sat on their hands for too long, the end result has almost always been a bout of unpleasantly high inflation, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the changing demographics.
In the mid-to-late nineteen-sixties, as gold’s role in the international monetary system was about to implode, a handful of top Johnson Administration officials, a few sympathetic members of Congress, and hundreds of government-paid scientists set off on a nuclear-age alchemical quest. Barr gave it the code name Operation Goldfinger. The government would end up looking for gold in the oddest places: seawater, meteorites, plants, even deer antlers. In an era during which people wanted badly to believe in the peaceful use of subatomic energy, plans were drawn up to use nuclear explosives to extract gold from deep inside the Earth, and even to use particle accelerators to try to change base metals into gold. ... Operation Goldfinger represented the logical culmination of a government obsession with not having enough gold. The post-war global economy was expanding much faster than the gold supply that propped it up. Dollars freely convertible to gold were the underpinning of the world’s monetary system, and President John F. Kennedy—and many others—feared that if holders of dollars and other U.S. securities were to cash in their paper for gold, there wouldn’t be enough gold to exchange, and a global crisis could ensue.