What Policy Do We Want Out of the Next Fed Chair?

What a difference a year makes. Last year, the Jackson Hole conference was focused on how monetary policy and central banks were still effective at the zero lower bound if they were willing to take chances. It provided the intellectual basis for several “asks,” including targeting states, allowing for conditional higher inflation under the Evans Rule, alongside a commitment to open-ended purchases in QE3. These asks were executed that winter.

This year it isn’t clear what “asks” there are for the Federal Reserve. Stop the taper? A higher inflation target? Targeting something else? More purchases? The Evans Rule and state-targeting established a specific goal that allowed us to measure whether or not the Federal Reserve was taking its responsibility seriously. There isn’t the same ask for this year.

Which is a problem, because there’s going to be a new Federal Reserve chair nominated in a few weeks. Last year, asking if the candidates supported the Evans Rule and QE3 would have helped us figure out if they took their role seriously. This year, the questions are more vague.

This hasn’t been helped by the lack of concrete writing on monetary policy during the crisis by the presumed frontrunner for the position, Larry Summers. As such, it’s hard to connect commentary on Summers with specific demands from monetary policy in the Great Recession. And much of Summers’ writings on financial reform are from before Dodd-Frank, so it is tough to link them to the specifics of what is happening right now.

Zachary Goldfarb at Wonkblog has a post, ”Here’s what Larry Summers would do at the Fed,” that tries to determine what Summers would emphasize. It’s “based on interviews with some of the people who know him best, primarily sources who have worked closely with him, along with parsing his public comments,“ which Goldfarb found while researching a longer piece on the politics of Obama nominating Summers.

You should read it, as I want to comment on four things that stand out from it. I hate formatting a post this way, but I want to use Goldfarb’s bullet points to emphasize what questions people should have of Summers if his name goes forward. Bold is Goldfarb:

“Summers wouldn’t be any more dovish or hawkish than Ben Bernanke… While he’s likely to focus on employment while inflation remains low, he’ll be a hawk if inflation starts to rise much beyond the 2 percent target.”

If Summers would get aggressive if inflation started to rise above 2 percent, that would be significantly more hawkish than current policy, which has the Federal Reserve willing to tolerate inflation until 2.5 percent if it’s seen as controlled. If it became an important part of his policy, the Fed could reinstate a de facto 2 percent ceiling on inflation.

Bernanke spent 2011-2012 moving the FOMC to endorse the Evans Rule. On the first read, it’s not clear that Summers would have done that if he had been appointed back in 2010, especially if he was skeptical of QE in general. If this is the case, it’s a major abandonment of what was hard fought for by doves like Bernanke and Janet Yellen.

More generally, many economists are calling for a move to a higher inflation target, both as a means to deal with our current recession and to prevent future episodes at the zero lower bound. If Summers is excluding this possibility out of hand, that’s a problem.

*Read the full version of the article here.

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