Marco Rubio's Terrible Idea About the Fed Is Just What It Needs

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Rubio's call for a single mandate for the Federal Reserve is a dangerous, and potentially disastrous, idea. Unless that single mandate is targeting nominal GDP instead of inflation.

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(Reuters)

Marco Rubio wants to be president, and unfortunately for him that means he's supposed to have an opinion about everything. I say unfortunately because Rubio has had a hard enough time figuring out the age of the earth, let alone one of the great mysteries like what the Fed should be doing now. The latter came up during Rubio's acceptance speech at the Jack Kemp foundation, and, as Dave Weigel of Slate reports, it did not go well. Hey, he's not a central banker, man.

A long time ago in an administration far, far away, the Republicans were the party of Milton Friedman. It was 2004. As Paul Krugman points out, then-chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Greg Mankiw advocated aggressive monetary policy as a way to mitigate recessions. This was economic boilerplate, but it was only boilerplate because of Friedman. After the Great Depression, economists didn't think central banks could do much to revive the economy if interest rates fell to zero -- the so-called liquidity trap -- and monetary policy consequently took a backseat to fiscal policy when it came to demand management. Friedman reversed this. He and Anna Schwarz argued the Great Depression was only so great because the Fed's inaction made it so. In other words, central banks were only powerless if they thought they were. They could do plenty, even in a liquidity trap, if they just printed money and promised to keep printing money -- what we rather prosaically call "quantitative easing" nowadays. It was a message conservatives could, and did, love. The government didn't need to spend more to stabilize the economy during a downturn as long as the Fed did its job.

And then the Great Recession happened.

With interest rates stuck at zero and the economy stuck in a growth slump, we're very much back in Friedman's world. But now conservatives aren't so sure about that "aggressive monetary policy" thing anymore. Zero interest rates just seem wrong, and quantitative easing must be a big government bailout on the road to Zimbabwe -- at least that's what they've told themselves, despite stubbornly low inflation. Of course, some conservatives claim inflation is "really" much higher than the government says, but, as Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review points out, this conspiracy theory doesn't withstand much more than two seconds of scrutiny.

This paranoid style in monetary policy has inspired a rather odd political crusade -- the crusade against the Fed's dual mandate. Most central banks are only tasked with worrying about inflation, but the Fed is tasked with worrying about inflation and unemployment. (Or, in Fed-speak, fostering the maximum level of employment consistent with price stability). This has become a bête noire for conservatives, because they think that were it not for the Fed caring about unemployment -- the horror! -- then it wouldn't have expanded its balance sheet so much, and that this expanded balance sheet will inevitably mean higher inflation down the road. Apparently Marco Rubio is one of these conservatives who sees the stagflationary 1970s around every corner. Here's what he said to say about the Fed.

Sound monetary policy would also encourage middle class job creation. The arbitrary way in which interest rates and our currency are treated is yet another cause of unpredictability injected into our economy. The Federal Reserve Board should publish and follow a clear monetary rule -- to provide greater stability about prices and what the value of a dollar will be over time.

Translation: Repeal the dual mandate and replace it with a single mandate for inflation only. This is all kinds of uninformed. As we have pointed out before, inflation has been lower with over four times less variance since Congress gave the Fed its dual mandate in 1978. And with inflation mostly undershooting its 2 percent target since Lehman failed, it's not as if the Fed even needed the dual mandate to justify easing -- a sole inflation mandate would have been enough. 

But Rubio is right that the Fed needs a better, clearer monetary rule nowadays. That's not to say that Fed policy has been arbitrary, but just that its rule needs some modernizing. For most of the so-called Great Moderation, the Fed followed something close to a Taylor rule, setting policy based on inflation and unemployment, and it served the Fed well. Greg Mankiw has his own simple version of a Taylor rule, which Paul Krugman tweaked slightly, that gives us a good idea of how the Fed thought then, as you can see below.

MankiwFF1988.png

You can see why the Great Moderation gave way to the Great Recession. Our Taylor rule says the Fed should have made interest rates negative in late 2008, but the Fed can't make interest rates negative. Well, at least not nominal rates. The Fed can increase inflation, which reduces real rates, to get borrowing costs to where they "should" be -- which is what Ben Bernanke has done, in fits and starts, the past four years. You can see all these fits and starts in the chart below that compares our same Taylor rule to Fed policy since 2006. It's not easy to get real rates down to -7 percent.

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There have been far too many fits and not nearly enough starts since 2008. Yes, the Fed tried unconventional easing in late 2008, early 2009, late 2010, late 2011 and late 2012, but it should have been easing this whole time. The Taylor rule has been negative this whole time, which means that the Fed should have been cutting interest rates, and cutting them a lot, this whole time. Instead, we got zero rates. Because inflation hasn't been that far off target, Bernanke has had a hard time convincing the rest of the FOMC to go along with quantitative easing -- so easing has been far less quantitative than the situation calls for. In other words, policy hasn't quite been arbitrary as much as ad hoc, with the unhappy result being an era of tight money.

Imagine the Fed had a single mandate, but not for inflation. Imagine instead the Fed had a single mandate for the total size of the economy, which goes by the unwieldy name of nominal GDP (NGDP). During the Great Moderation, NGDP grew about 5 percent a year, but it's only grown about 2.85 percent a year since 2008. If the Fed had an NGDP target of 5 percent a year, and was supposed to make up for any over-or-undershooting, it would have been aggressively easing the entire time since 2008. It's a dual mandate that doesn't get confused by low inflation and low growth. 

That's not the single mandate Rubio has in mind, but it's the single mandate we need. And it's the single mandate conservatives should want -- conservatives like Scott Sumner, David Beckworth, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jim Pethokoukis and Evan Soltas already do. 

It's a rule so simple even scientists and senators can get it.

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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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