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Monetary Policy and Unemployment: Should the Fed have Done More?

Should the Fed have done more to combat the unemployment problem? In examining the costs and benefits of further easing, I have made almost all of the arguments against further easing by the Fed made below, i.e. that further easing by the Fed may not have much additional effect on long-term real interest rates, that even if rates could be brought down, consumers and businesses would be unlikely to respond by increasing investment and the consumption of durables -- firms already have considerable idle capacity, so why build more, and consumers are pessimistic about their futures, so why buy on credit -- and that there is an inflation risk from further easing.

One additional argument against more aggressive action by the Fed is that there is considerable uncertainty about the effects of further easing because they do not yet have "a robust suite of formal models to reliably calibrate interventions of this sort." But as with climate change, uncertainty does not necessarily translate into inaction. If the uncertainty includes much worse outcomes for employment than expected, and if the costs we attach to that outcome are very large, then uncertainty may prompt more aggressive rather than less aggressive intervention.

Yet another argument concerns the degree to which current productivity changes are permanent of temporary and how that translates into the degree of slack in labor markets. However, on this point I agree that "the sheer magnitude of unemployment today is so large that there is little doubt in my mind that there is considerable slack in the economy." Thus, however this debate comes out, it does not much change the degree and urgency of the unemployment problem.

In the end it comes down to the relative weights placed on the cost of inflation and the cost of unemployment, and I don't think policymakers are placing enough weight on the unemployment term (particularly given the uncertainty about the speed of recovery).

I have been somewhat hesitant to push this point strongly because I think the bigger blame ought to go to fiscal policy authorities, i.e. Congress. Blaming the Fed for the unemployment problem gives Congress a scapegoat that allows them to avoid their own failings. But something needs to be done, and both monetary and fiscal policymakers could do more.

This is the last part of a speech given today from Charlie Evans, President of the Chicago Fed, along with a graph from the speech showing the severity of the long-term unemployment problem:

Labor Markets and Monetary Policy, by Charles Evans, President, Chicago Fed: ...Productivity and resource slack The other side of an economy experiencing growing output but low labor utilization is high productivity growth. Indeed, productivity has been quite strong of late, particularly over the past three quarters. This is often the case in the early stages of a recovery, as firms first meet higher demand for their products and services without expanding their work force.
A key question today is the degree to which the recent productivity surge reflects a temporary cyclical development or a more enduring increase in the level or trend rate of productivity. If the gains are predominantly driven by intense cost cutting, then they may be unsustainable once demand revives more persistently. In this case, we would expect hiring to pick up quickly as the economic expansion takes hold. However, if the level or trend in productivity has risen due to technological or other improvements, then higher average productivity gains will continue. In this case, the implications for hiring are not clear. Higher levels of productivity will show through in both higher potential and actual output for the economy, and so need not necessarily come at the cost of lower labor input.
The relative importance of these factors also has consequences for our assessment of the degree to which resource slack exists in the economy. Since a higher level or trend of productivity implies a higher path for potential output, a given level of actual GDP would also be associated with a greater degree of economic slack. That is, the good news on productivity, if sustained, suggests that as of today we have a larger output gap to fill In contrast, some are skeptical that the economy really is operating far below sustainable levels. They argue that much of the drop in output during the recession was the result of a permanent reduction in the economy's productive capacity, perhaps because certain financial market practices that had for a time enabled additional investments have now been discredited. According to this view, the strong productivity growth of recent quarters only goes a fraction of the way toward offsetting this decline in the level of potential output.
Of course, the unemployment rate gives us another way to infer the degree of slack in the economy. My earlier discussion of the sharp rise in unemployment duration and decline in labor force attachment may lead one to think that slack is even greater than what is implied by the unemployment rate itself.
However, it is possible that longer durations and lower labor force attachment could reflect broader structural changes in the economy, such as a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and those demanded by employers. There may also be other impediments that currently prevent workers from shifting to the industries or locations where jobs are available. Under these scenarios, labor market slack might actually be lower than what one might infer from the unemployment rate alone.
I have just given you 2 minutes of classic two-handed economist speak. In the final analysis, however, the sheer magnitude of unemployment today is so large that there is little doubt in my mind that there is considerable slack in the economy. Incorporating alternative views about productivity and labor market behavior do not alter this general conclusion. The debate really boils down to whether the amount of slack in the economy is large or is extremely large.
Should the Fed have done more?
Given this large degree of slack, there is a legitimate question of whether monetary policy could, and more fundamentally should, have done more to combat the deterioration in labor markets. As we all know, a lot was done. As the crisis arose, we first used our traditional tools, substantially cutting the federal funds rate and lending to banks through our discount window. As we neared a zero funds rate, we turned to nontraditional tools to clear up the choke points, providing liquidity directly to nonbank financial institutions and supporting a number of short-term credit markets. Finally, we reduced long-term interest rates further by purchasing additional medium- and long-term Treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and the debt of government-sponsored enterprises.
These nontraditional actions helped us avoid what easily could have been an even more severe economic contraction. But the unemployment rate still hit 10 percent this fall.
Had we done more, the most plausible action would have been to expand our Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP) program. Precisely quantifying the effect this would have had is difficult. A good place to start, though, is to look at the recent empirical evidence.[3] When significant new asset purchases were announced, our big, fluid financial markets built that information immediately into asset prices. For example, right after the March 2009 Treasury purchase announcement, ten-year Treasury yields fell about 50 basis points. Comparable declines occurred in Option Adjusted Spreads (OAS) on the announcement of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) purchases in November 2008. It might be reasonable to infer that say, doubling the size of the LSAPs might have doubled this impact on rates.
However, I would attach more than the usual amount of uncertainty to such an inference. Part of my hesitation reflects our lack of understanding about the interactions between nontraditional monetary policy, interest rates, and economic activity. While research efforts at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere to assess the effects of nonstandard monetary policy have been ramped up considerably, to date we do not have a robust suite of formal models to reliably calibrate interventions of this sort.
Moreover, there are reasons to expect that the impact of recent nontraditional policy actions might not have scaled up so simply. We initially responded to the financial crisis with our highest-value tool--a reduction in the funds rate--and then moved to our best alternative policies as interest rates approached zero. Finally, we turned to the LSAPs, which were designed to further lower long-term interest rates and thus stimulate demand for interest-sensitive spending, such as business fixed investment, housing, and durables goods expenditures. But the influence of lower rates on private sector decision-making may have reached the point of second-order importance relative to the countervailing forces of the housing overhang, business and household caution, and considerably tighter lending standards.
Moreover, although it is impossible to quantify, a portion of the impact of our nontraditional actions may have come simply from boosting confidence. In those very dark times, I believe households, businesses, and financial markets were reassured that policymakers were acting in a decisive manner. Further asset purchases would not have had an additional effect of this kind.
In addition, on a practical level, the portfolio of future purchases likely would have looked different and therefore their overall effectiveness might have deviated from our recent experience. The Fed's typical monthly purchases of new issuance MBS were so large that it left very little floating supply for private investors. This could have forced a larger LSAP program to concentrate more heavily in Treasuries or existing MBS. Though the empirical evidence is limited, these assets likely are less close substitutes than new MBS for many of the instruments used to finance spending on new capital goods, housing, and consumer durables. Consequently, the effect of their purchase on economic activity may be less.
Finally, we must also keep in mind that more monetary stimulus also has costs. These could be considerable at higher LSAP levels. Many are already worried about the inflation implications of the Fed's expanded balance sheet and the associated large increase in the monetary base. Currently, most of the increase in the monetary base is sitting idly in bank reserves--and because banks are not lending those reserves, they are not generating spending pressure. But leaving the current highly accommodative monetary policy in place for too long would eventually fuel inflationary pressures. Likewise, if the monetary base was expanded much beyond where we are today, the risk that such pressures would build as the economy recovers would be significantly increased. Furthermore, policymakers already face the task of unwinding a sizable balance sheet at the appropriate time and pace. Substantially increasing the size of asset purchases could have further complicated the exit process down the road.
That said, changes in economic conditions could alter the costâ€"benefit calculus with regard to the LSAP. Hopefully the recovery will progress without any serious bumps in the road and the inflation outlook will remain benign. But, as we have repeatedly indicated in the FOMC statements, the Committee will continue to evaluate its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. ...