Why The Federal Reserve Needs To Be Independent

Last Updated Nov 12, 2009 8:42 AM EST

There are several bills that have been proposed in Congress directed at the Federal Reserve. The two most prominent proposals are Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd's bill to take away most of the Fed's regulatory authority, and Congressman Ron Paul's bill to force the Fed to allow its monetary policies to be audited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Many people worry, rightly in my opinion, that if these proposals or others like them are passed into law, then the Fed's independence would be threatened.

Political business cycles and inflation
Why is the Fed's independence so important? One reason is the control of inflation. As former Federal Reserve Governor Frederic Mishkin wrote this week in an op-ed coauthored with Anil Kashyup of the University of Chicago:
Economic theory and massive amounts of empirical evidence make a strong case for maintaining the Fed's independence. When central banks are subjected to political pressure, authorities often pursue excessively expansionary monetary policy in order to lower unemployment in the short run. This produces higher inflation and higher interest rates without lowering unemployment in the long term. This has happened over and over again in the past, not only in the United States but in many other countries throughout the world.
What Mishkin and Kashyup are referring to are "political business cycles." The idea is that monetary policy acts faster on output and employment than it does on inflation. To take a concrete example, suppose that the impact of a change in the money supply on output peaks about six months after the change in policy, and then fades after that. And also suppose that the impact of the change in the money supply on prices is delayed six months and is not fully felt until eighteen months after the policy change (these are roughly consistent with econometric estimates of the impact of changes in money on output and prices).

This situation opens up the possibility for a politician in control of the money supply to manipulate the economy in an attempt to increase the chances of getting reelected. If votes depend upon output growth, as they seem to, then the politician can pump up the money supply around six months before the election so that output will peak just as the election is held. Then, the politician could plan to reduce the money supply just after the election to avoid having inflation problems down the road.

So the politician implements this strategy, gets reelected, and now comes the time to cut back on the money supply. But there's a problem. Output peaked the month of the election, and has been falling ever since. Will the politician actually cut the money supply and raise interest rates to avoid inflation -- which would reduce output and employment growth even further, something that is sure to bring protests -- or decide to live with the inflation? The choice is often to live with inflation, and as the cycle repeats with each election, inflation slowly ratchets upward.

Budget deficits and inflation
But political manipulation of the money supply is not the problem most people are worried about, it's the expected increase in the government debt that is creating the inflation worry.

When the government purchases goods and services, those purchases must be financed in one of three ways--raising taxes, borrowing from the public (i.e., issuing government debt), or printing new money. Thus, if government spending is much larger than taxes, and if raising taxes is political poison, then the deficit must be financed by either printing money or issuing new government debt. However, increasing the government debt is often a bad choice politically, so when faced with this decision politicians often choose to increase the money supply rather than increase the debt, and the result is inflation. The inflation is a hidden tax--in essence the government spending is paid for by inflating away the value of the dollar, but the blame for the inflation can often be displaced onto things like oil and other commodity prices, and thus the political consequences are not as large as for changes in taxes or in the debt.

The hope is that an independent Fed can overcome the temptation to use monetary policy to influence elections, and also overcome the temptation to monetize the debt, and that it will do what's best for the economy in the long-run rather than adopting the policy that maximizes the chances of politicians being reelected.

Independence threatened
Many people are worried that if the US does not get its long-run debt problem under control, a problem driven mainly by escalating health care costs, then politicians worried about their reelection chances will begin pressuring the Fed to finance the debt by printing money. And if the Fed is uncooperative, its independence may be taken away legislatively.

I believe these threats are real, and as noted above, experience shows that once politicians get involved in monetary policy, inflation generally becomes a problem. For that reason, I am very opposed to anything that threatens the Fed's ability to assert its independence and keep the economy on the best long-run path. (For more discussion of the pros and cons of Fed independence, see here; for more on the degree of the Fed's independence in the U.S., see the bottom of this post.)

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