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The Fed versus price stability

Mar 29,2015 - Last updated at Mar 29,2015

There is a big difference between the Federal Reserve’s mandate to maintain “stable prices” — as enunciated in the Federal Reserve Act — and the Fed’s self-selected target of 2 per cent annual inflation.

So how is it that policy makers have managed to substitute the latter for the former?

The term “stable prices” is self-explanatory: a bundle of goods will cost the same 10, 50, or even 100 years from now. By contrast, if a country experiences 2 per cent inflation over a 10-year period, the same items that $100 can buy today will cost $122 at the end of the decade. After 100 years, the price tag will be a whopping $724.

In her recent congressional testimony, Fed Chair Janet Yellen referred several times to the mandate of maintaining “stable prices”; but she mentioned the Fed’s 2 per cent inflation objective twice as often.

“US inflation continues to run below the committee’s 2 per cent objective,” she said, and the current “high degree of policy accommodation remains appropriate to foster further improvement in labour market conditions and to promote a return of inflation towards 2 per cent over the medium term”.

Does the Fed really want to increase annual inflation to 2 per cent, such that the price level of the country will increase by more than 700 per cent over the next century? Is that what Congress had in mind when it tasked the Fed with achieving “stable prices”?

Former Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, knew that it did not. On July 2, 1996, at a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which was devoted to extensive discussion of the appropriate inflation target for the Fed, Greenspan posed a simple question: “Are we talking about price stability or are we talking about zero inflation?” he asked.

“As we all know, those are two separate things.”

The discussion quickly turned to the difficulty of measuring inflation accurately and the need to build in a “safety cushion” to avoid deflation. According to Greenspan, “price stability is that state in which expected changes in the general price level do not effectively alter business and household decisions.”

Yellen, then a Fed governor, was not satisfied: “Could you please put a number on that?” she asked. Greenspan did: “I would say that number is zero, if inflation is properly measured,” he replied.

At the time of that FOMC meeting, the consumer price index was increasing at about 3 per cent per year.

Most of the discussion focused on whether the Fed should slow annual price growth to 2 per cent or even lower, thereby consolidating the gains made in the difficult fight against inflation that policy makers had waged for the previous 15 years.

Greenspan summarised the consensus: “...we have now all agreed on 2 per cent...”

Thus, the Fed’s 2 per cent inflation objective was born. During the ensuing discussion, several FOMC members argued that the inflation rate might be reduced to less than 2 per cent, but nobody argued that inflation should be pushed higher if a lower, but still positive, rate was achieved.

Following the discussion, Greenspan exhorted the FOMC members to keep the discussion of the inflation target secret.

“I will tell you that if the 2 per cent inflation figure gets out of this room,” he warned, “it is going to create more problems for us than I think any of you might anticipate”.

The official minutes of the meeting make no reference to the entire discussion of the inflation target, which took up several hours, and the FOMC never formally announced its 2 per cent target for annual inflation until Chairman Ben Bernanke, Yellen’s predecessor, finally did so in 2012.

The 2 per cent inflation target now is at the forefront of FOMC decision making.

For example, while annual inflation stood at 0.8 per cent in December 2014, the minutes of the January 2015 FOMC meeting refer several times to the committee’s need to make “progress towards its objectives of maximum employment and 2 per cent inflation” by maintaining a highly accommodative policy stance. Increasing the rate of inflation is now the stated objective of Fed policy.

Congress did not give the Fed a mandate to pursue that goal. The Federal Reserve Act is explicit: the Fed should achieve “price stability” for the US currency, along with moderate interest rates and maximum employment.

As long as inflation is somewhere between 0 and 2 per cent, the Fed should declare victory and leave it at that.

The writer is a former member of the US Federal Reserve board of governors. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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