Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mixed Signals and Monetary Policy Discretion

Two recent Economic Letters from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco highlight the difficulty of making monetary policy decisions when alternative measures of labor market slack and the output gap give mixed signals. In Monetary Policy when the Spyglass is Smudged, Early Elias, Helen Irvin, and √íscar Jord√† show that conventional policy rules based on the output gap and on the deviation of the unemployment rate from its natural rate generate wide-ranging policy rate prescriptions. Similarly, in Mixed Signals: Labor Markets and Monetary Policy, Canyon Bosler, Mary Daly, and Fernanda Nechio calculate the policy rate prescribed by a Taylor rule under alternative measures of labor market slack. The figure below illustrates the large divergence in alternative prescribed policy rates since the Great Recession.

Source: Bosler, Daly, and Nechio (2014), Figure 2
Uncertainty about the state of the labor market makes monetary policy more challenging and requires more discretion and judgment on the part of policymakers. What does discretion and judgment look like in practice? I think it should involve reasoning qualitatively to determine if some decisions lead to possible outcomes that are definitively worse than others. For example, here's how I would reason through the decision about whether to raise the policy rate under high uncertainty about the labor market:

Suppose it is May and the Fed is deciding whether to increase the target rate by 25 basis points. Assume inflation is still at or slightly below 2%, and the Fed would like to tighten monetary policy if and only if the "true" state of the labor market x is sufficiently high, say above some threshold X. The Fed does not observe x but has some very noisy signals about it.  They think there is about a fifty-fifty chance that x is above X, so it is not at all obvious whether tightening is appropriate. There are four possible scenarios:

  1. The Fed does not increase the target rate, and it turns out that x>X.
  2. The Fed does not increase the target rate, and it turns out that x<X.
  3. The Fed does increase the target rate, and it turns out that x>X.
  4. The Fed does increase the target rate, and it turns out that x>X.

Cases (2) and (3) are great. In case (2), the Fed did not tighten when tightening was not appropriate, and in case (3), the Fed tightened when tightening was appropriate. Cases (1) and (4) are "mistakes." In case (1), the Fed should have tightened but did not, and in case (4), the Fed should not have tightened but did. Which is worse?

If we think just about immediate or short-run impacts, case (1) might mean inflation goes higher than the Fed wants and x goes even higher above X; case (4) might mean unemployment goes higher than the Fed wants and x falls even further below X. Maybe you have an opinion on which of those short-run outcomes is worse, or maybe not. But the bigger difference between the outcomes comes when you think about the Fed's options at its subsequent meeting. In case (1), the Fed could choose how much they want to raise rates to restrain inflation. In case (4), the Fed could keep rates constant or reverse the previous meeting's rate increase.

In case (4), neither option is good. Keeping the target at 25 basis points is too restrictive. Labor market conditions were bad to begin with and keeping policy tight will make them worse. But reversing the rate increase is a non-starter. The markets expect that after the first rate increase, rates will continue on an upward trend, as in previous tightening episodes. Reversing the rate increase would cause financial market turmoil, damage credibility, and require policymakers to admit that they were wrong. Case (1) is much more attractive. I think any concern that inflation could take off and get out of control is unwarranted. In the space between two FOMC meetings, even if inflation were to rise above target, inflation expectations are not likely to rise too far. The Fed could easily restrain expectations at the next meeting by raising rates as aggressively as needed.

So going back to the four possible scenarios, (2) and (3) are good, and (4) is much worse than (1). If the Fed raises rates, scenarios (3) and (4) are about equally likely. If the Fed holds rates constant, (1) and (2) are about equally likely. Thus, holding rates constant under high uncertainty about the state of the labor market is a better option than potentially raising rates too soon.


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