Chicago Fed president Charles Evans has gone from dissenter to intellectual leader in just a year. The future of the recovery might be at stake.
Some revolutionaries wear Guy Fawkes masks and talk about the 1 percent, and some revolutionaries wear suits and talk about policy thresholds. Chicago Fed president Charles Evans is one of the latter.
A year ago Evans was the rare dovish dissenter at the Fed. He didn't think it was taking the unemployment half of its dual mandate seriously enough, so he proposed a new, eponymous rule for it to do better. He certainly wasn't the first Fed president to have his own ideas about monetary policy, but a funny thing happened on his way to heterodoxy -- his ideas quickly became the consensus. Now, just a year later, the Fed has fully embraced the so-called Evans rule by linking interest rates to the unemployment rate.
Ain't no revolution like a monetary policy revolution.
It's been a brave, old world for central banks the past four years. Short-term interest rates have been stuck at zero, which, outside of Japan, hasn't happened since the 1930s. It's what economists call a liquidity trap, and it means central banks can't stimulate growth like they normally do by cutting short-term interest rates. They can't cut below zero. This doesn't mean central banks are powerless, just that they have to try new things.
These new things come in two varieties: promises and purchases. Central banks can pledge to hold short-term rates at zero even after the recovery accelerates, or they can buy long-term bonds to push down long-term rates; the former is what Paul Krugman calls "credibly promising to be irresponsible" and the latter is what we call "quantitative easing." These sound like big changes from standard operating procedure, but the goal with both is the same as normal -- to reduce interest rates. It's just harder to do in a liquidity trap. Central banks have to increase expected inflation to lower inflation-adjusted rates when nominal, that is headline, rates are at zero. That's the point of these promises and purchases, and that's been the point of the Fed saying it expects to keep rates at zero through mid-2015 and buying $85 billion of mortgage and Treasury bonds a month. But as much as the Fed has done, there's still much more it can do -- like making its promises more explicit -- which it started to do with its latest policy move. Let's break it down into two pieces.
(1) THE EVANS RULE
The Fed's big announcement was that it won't raise rates before unemployment falls to 6.5 percent or inflation rises to 2.5 percent. Notice the word "before" here. The Fed won't automatically raise rates if unemployment or inflation hits one of these thresholds, but it won't do so until at least then. These are the exact thresholds Evans endorsed a few weeks ago, which are modest tweaks from his original thresholds last year of 7 percent unemployment and 3 percent inflation.
Why all the fuss? This Evans rule doesn't seem to tell us anything the Fed wasn't already telling us. Just look at the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) latest economic projections. The Fed doesn't think unemployment will fall below 6.5 percent until 2015 -- and it never thinks inflation will rise above 2 percent -- which implies rates will stay at zero until then. That's exactly what they were saying before.
In truth, the Evans revolution is less a revolution itself and more a significant step on the way to the actual revolution -- NGDP targeting. We'll come back to this larger point, but first let's talk about why the Evans rule matters. Its virtue is it should make the Fed's decision-making more transparent, and that should affect people's expectations more. Contrast the Evans rule with what the Fed told us before -- say from October -- about how long zero interest rates would last.
[The Fed] currently anticipates that exceptionally low levels for the federal runds rate are likely to be warranted at least through mid-2015.
Is this a promise, maybe? That's how most people interpreted it, but it's not entirely clear. Read it again. The Fed was saying it expected the economy to be crummy enough to justify zero rates until mid-2015. But what if the economy picked up before then? Would the Fed raise rates then? Good question! The Evans rule clears this up a bit -- though not entirely -- but more importantly, it clears up whether the Fed has a 2 percent inflation target or ceiling.
The Fed has been trying to answer that question for the past year. As Greg Ip of The Economist pointed out, the Fed rather significantly announced back in January that it thought the inflation and unemployment halves of its mandate were equally important, and changed its long-run inflation target from 1.5-2 percent to 2 percent. This was the Fed's way of saying it wouldn't necessarily raise rates if inflation crept over 2 percent as long as unemployment was still high and long-run inflation expectations didn't rise. In other words, the Fed's inflation target was not a 2 percent speed limit on the recovery. Or was it? Look at that table again. The Fed doesn't project inflation to go above 2 percent at all. That sure looks like a ceiling, still. The Evans rule tries to correct this -- though it would help if these latest projections were symmetrical around 2 percent -- by explicitly saying the Fed really, seriously will tolerate inflation as high as 2.5 percent in the short run.
But there's plenty that still isn't clear. Like how and whether this will work. The Evans rule sounds straightforward enough, but these thresholds are not. The Fed left itself a bit of wiggle room. When it comes to unemployment, the Fed will look at other labor force measures like the participation rate. In other words, it will consider whether unemployment is falling because people are finding jobs or because people have given up on finding jobs. It gets murkier when it comes to inflation. The Fed will use its 1-2 year inflation forecasts for its threshold. Yes, forecasts. That gives the Fed some needed flexibility to ignore commodity surges, like oil in 2011, but it's not the clearest of guides.
Remember, clarity is supposed to be the point. The idea is that the more markets understand the Fed's plans, the more the Fed's plans will shape markets' expectations. It's a bit like a Jedi mind trick. If people think things will be better in the future, then things will be better in the future, because that will get them spending and investing more now. Making us expect a better tomorrow might be the best the Fed can do today. Especially when you consider how short-lived the effects have been from the Fed's other unconventional easing. You can see that in the chart below that looks at market-based inflation expectations for 1, 2, and 10 year periods. Inflation expectations rise every time the Fed does something, and then retreat a few months later.
(Note: These break-evens measure the differences between Treasury and TIPS, or inflation-protected, bonds. They aren't always reliable because TIPS are so lightly traded -- their nickname is "terribly illiquid pieces of," well, we'll let you figure out the rest -- but they're a decent proxy. All data is from Bloomberg).
Inflation expectations should tick up again, especially if we disarm the austerity bomb known as the fiscal cliff, but the overall pattern of peaks and valleys probably isn't going to go away yet.
(2) ASSET PURCHASES
The Fed's other (slightly less) big announcement was that it will continue its $85 billion of monthly asset purchases, albeit with a slight, um, twist. Here's what hasn't changed: the Fed will buy $45 billion of Treasury bonds and $40 billion of mortgage bonds each and every month until unemployment "substantially" improves. What has changed is how the Fed will pay for its $45 billion of Treasury bond purchases. Before, the Fed had been selling $45 billion of short-term bonds to pay for the $45 billion of long-term bonds it was buying, which went by the dramatic name of "Operation Twist". It was a way to lower long-term borrowing costs without printing money, back when more Fed members were worried about potential inflation. But with its supply of short-term Treasuries running, well, short, the Fed will turn Twist into QE. In other words, it will now print money to pay for the $45 billion of Treasuries it buys. The Fed's balance sheet will grow more than before, though its monthly flow of purchases remains the same.
It's okay if you have that Animal Farm feeling. There's been a revolution, but nothing has changed. The Fed still thinks it's first rate hike will come in 2015-ish, and it's still buying $85 billion of bonds a month. This is a true fact. But it undersells the intellectual shift at the Fed. It's gone from mostly thinking about inflation to creating a framework to guide its thinking about inflation and unemployment. And it's done that in just a year. This framework, the Evans rule, is really just a quasi-NGDP target. It's not exactly the catchiest of phrases, but NGDP, or nominal GDP, targeting would be a real revolution in central banking. In plain English, it's the idea that central banks should target the size of the economy, unadjusted for inflation, and make up for any past over-or-undershooting. In theory, a flexible enough inflation target should mimic an NGDP target, which is why the Evans rule is so historic. It's an incremental step on the way to regime change at the Fed.
That doesn't mean we should expect the Fed to move towards NGDP targeting anytime soon. A risk-averse institution like the Fed will want to see another country try it first -- and it might get that chance soon. Incoming Bank of England chief Mark Carney, who currently heads the Bank of Canada, endorsed the idea in a recent speech, and British Treasury officials indicated they might be open to it too -- which is significant because the British Treasury can unilaterally change its central bank's mandate. It might not be long till NGDP targeting comes to Britain, and from there, the world. If it does, you can be sure that Charles Evans will be figuring out how to make it work here.
The Evans rule won't save the economy today, but it might tomorrow -- if it leads to better central banking. It should. It's a big conceptual step forward. And it's a big conceptual step forward we're going to need if Evan Soltas is right that we're likely to hit the zero bound more often in the future.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
“The question confronting us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” a group of Republican and Democratic experts write.
Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
In late 2015, in the Chilean desert, astronomers pointed a telescope at a faint, nearby star known as ared dwarf. Amid the star’s dim infrared glow, they spotted periodic dips, a telltale sign that something was passing in front of it, blocking its light every so often. Last summer, the astronomers concluded the mysterious dimming came from three Earth-sized planets—and that they were orbiting in the star’s temperate zone, where temperatures are not too hot, and not too cold, but just right for liquid water, and maybe even life.
This was an important find. Scientists for years had focused on stars like our sun in their search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Red dwarfs, smaller and cooler than the sun, were thought to create inhospitable conditions. They’re also harder to see, detectable by infrared rather than visible light. But the astronomers aimed hundreds of hours worth of observations at this dwarf, known as TRAPPIST-1 anyway, using ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
A $100 million gangster epic starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has become too risky a proposition for major studios.
Martin Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman, is as close as you can get to a box-office guarantee for the famed director. It’s a gangster film based on a best-selling book about a mob hitman who claimed to have a part in the legendary disappearance of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro is attached to play the hitman, Al Pacino will star as Hoffa, and Scorsese favorites Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel are also on board. After Scorsese branched into more esoteric territory this year with Silence, a meditative exploration of faith and Catholicism, The Irishman sounds like a highly bankable project—the kind studios love. And yet, the film is going to Netflix, which will bankroll its $100 million budget and distribute it around the world on the company’s streaming service.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Rod Dreher makes a powerful argument for communal religious life in his book, The Benedict Option. But he has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.
Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.
And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.
“Don’t be fooled,” he tells fellow Christians in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”
Consolidated corporate power is keeping many products’ prices high and quality low. Why aren’t more politicians opposing it?
There are many competing interpretations for why Hillary Clinton lost last fall’s election, but most observers do agree that economics played a big role. Clinton simply didn’t articulate a vision compelling enough to compete with Donald Trump’s rousing, if dubious, message that bad trade deals and illegal immigration explain the downward mobility of so many Americans.
As it happens, Clinton did have the germ of exactly such an idea—if one knew where to look. In an October 2015 op-ed, she wrote that “large corporations are concentrating control over markets” and “using their power to raise prices, limit choices for consumers, lower wages for workers, and hold back competition from startups and small businesses. It’s no wonder Americans feel the deck is stacked for those at the top.” In a speech in Toledo last fall, Clinton assailed “old-fashioned monopolies” and vowed to appoint “tough” enforcers “so the big don’t keep getting bigger and bigger.”
You can tell a lot about a person from how they react to something.
That’s why Facebook’s various “Like” buttons are so powerful. Clicking a reaction icon isn’t just a way to register an emotional response, it’s also a way for Facebook to refine its sense of who you are. So when you “Love” a photo of a friend’s baby, and click “Angry” on an article about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, you’re training Facebook to see you a certain way: You are a person who seems to love babies and hate Tom Brady.
The more you click, the more sophisticated Facebook’s idea of who you are becomes. (Remember: Although the reaction choices seem limited now—Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry—up until around this time last year, there was only a “Like” button.)