Those Low Rates

Via (what else?) Alea’s Twitter feed, John Taylor defends himself against Ben Bernanke:

“The evidence is overwhelming that those low interest rates were not only unusually low but they logically were a factor in the housing boom and therefore ultimately the bust,” Taylor, a Stanford University economist, said in an interview today in Atlanta.

It’s not actually that they’re not saying the same thing. Bernanke argued (and I agreed) that low rates did not cause the housing bubble. We have had low rates without producing housing bubbles before. (Other asset bubbles are another question.) Indeed, the last lasting housing bubble peaked just as the Federal Funds rate did:

More accurately (and also via ATF), Caroline Baum takes Bernanke to task for sleight-of-hand:

For example, Bernanke takes great pains to rebut criticism that the funds rate was well below where the Taylor Rule…suggested it should be following the 2001 recession. The Taylor Rule uses actual inflation versus target inflation and actual gross domestic product versus potential GDP to determine the appropriate level of the funds rate.

Substitute forecast inflation for actual inflation, and the personal consumption expenditures price index for the consumer price index, and — voila! — monetary policy looks far less accommodating, Bernanke said.

It’s always easier to start with a desired conclusion and retrofit a model or equation to prove it.

Ouch. Is it a great day when the journalist is making more sense about the economist’s work than another economist is?

But more to the point, the argument that rates were kept unnaturally low from ca. 2002 through ca. 2005 depends very much on the idea that the Fed does not have two jobs. (Once again, h/t to Dean Baker.)

The other half below the break

As Baker notes at the link above, “the dual mandate [of the Fed] is full employment (defined as 4.0 percent unemployment) and price stability.”

Let’s be generous. I’ve plotted the Civilian Employment/Population Ratio and the Official Unemployment Rate below. The blue line at 4.5 applies only to the Unemployment Rate (red line). (I didn’t plot it at 4.0 because that would be cruel.)

So what we have is a situation where (1) the Employment/Population Ratio by the end of 2006 is barely back near the level it was at the end of the recession of 2001 and (2) it is only near the end of 2006 that the Official Unemployment Rates approaches the official target rate (which it hadn’t seen since before the 2001 recession).

It seems apparent that Taylor’s “Rule” (which considers inflation and GDP, but not employment per se) is not compatible with official Fed mandates. In such a context, Caroline Baum’s “gotcha” is more a case of her using inappropriate variables—and Bernanke substituting a more appropriate model, given the Fed’s mandates—than it is a case of Bernanke “retrofitting.”

No wonder John Taylor says we should worry about inflation; in his world, we never have to worry about unemployment, so long as there are enough bubbles to inflate GDP.

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