Nominal interest rates are very low, and in a world of excess global saving, low inflation, and high demand for safe assets like government debt, there's a good chance that they will be low for a long time. That fact poses a potential problem for the Federal Reserve and other central banks: When the next recession arrives, there may be limited room for the interest-rate cuts that have traditionally been central banks' primary tool for sustaining employment and keeping inflation near target.
That concerning possibility has led to calls for a new monetary policy framework, including by Fed insiders like John Williams, president of the San Francisco Fed. In particular, Williams has joined Olivier Blanchard and other prominent economists in proposing that the Fed consider raising its target for inflation, currently 2 percent. If the Fed targeted a higher average level of inflation, the reasoning goes, nominal interest rates would also tend to be higher, leaving more room for rate cuts when needed.
Ben S. Bernanke
Distinguished Fellow in Residence - Economic Studies
Interestingly, some advocates of a higher inflation target have been dismissive of the use of negative short-term interest rates, an alternative means of increasing "space" for monetary easing. For example, in a recent interview in which he advocated reconsideration of the Fed's inflation target, Williams said: "Negative rates are still at the bottom of the stack in terms of net effectiveness." Williams's colleague on the Federal Open Market Committee, Eric Rosengren, also has suggested that the Fed may need to set higher inflation targets in the future while asserting that negative rates should be viewed as a last resort. My sense is that Williams's and Rosengren's negative view of negative rates is broadly shared on the FOMC. Outside the United States, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has expressed openness to targeting nominal GDP (which essentially involves targeting a higher inflation rate when GDP growth is low), but has also made clear that he is "not a fan" of negative interest rates.
As I explain below, negative rates and higher inflation targets can be viewed as alternative methods for pushing the real interest rate further below zero. In that context, I am puzzled by the apparently strong preference for a higher inflation target over negative rates, at least based on what we know now. Yes, negative interest rates raise a variety of practical problems, as well as political and communications issues, but so does a higher inflation target. In this post, I argue that it's premature for policymakers to emphasize the option of raising the inflation target over the use of negative rates. Pending further study about the costs and benefits of both approaches, we should remain agnostic about whether either or both should be part of the Fed's policy framework.
Comparing a strategy based on a higher inflation target with the use of negative rates is natural because, as just mentioned, they work through the same channel. Economic theory suggests that aggregate demand (consumption and investment) responds to the real rate of interest, which is the nominal (market) interest rate minus the public's expected rate of inflation. As I noted in my earlier post on negative rates, the Fed has routinely set the real federal funds rate at negative levels (i.e., with the nominal funds rate below inflation) to fight recessions. However, with the inflation target at its current level of 2 percent, and assuming that the Fed does not set its policy rate lower than zero, the Fed cannot reduce the real policy rate below -2 percent, i.e. a zero nominal rate less 2 percent expected inflation. History, including the experience of the past few years, suggests that—in the absence of a robust fiscal response—that may not be enough to deal with a bad recession. To reduce the real policy rate further, the Fed would either have to lower the nominal interest rate into negative territory, raise expected inflation (by raising the inflation target), or both. Since negative nominal rates and a higher inflation target both serve to reduce the lower (negative) bound on the real interest rate achievable by monetary policy, they are to some extent substitutes.
Which approach is preferable? Without trying to be exhaustive, I'll briefly compare them on four counts: ease of implementation, costs and side effects, distributional effects, and political risks. I find that negative rates are not clearly inferior to a higher inflation target and may even be preferable on some dimensions.
Ease of implementation. Negative interest rates are easy to implement. In practice, central banks in Europe and Japan have imposed negative short-term rates by deciding to charge (rather than pay) interest on bank reserves, an action that is clear, concrete, and essentially instantaneous. Experience suggests that the effects of imposing negative rates on reserves also spread fairly quickly to other interest rates and asset prices. Like other central banks, the Fed pays interest on bank reserves and presumably could use a similar approach—essentially charging banks to keep reserves at the Fed—to enforce a negative policy rate.
In contrast, while the Fed could announce at any time that it is raising its inflation target, the announcement would not increase the Fed's ability to lower the real interest rate unless the public's inflation expectations changed accordingly. But, as the Japanese experience has shown, inflation expectations may adjust slowly or incompletely to announced changes in target, especially if actual inflation has been very low for some time. The public might also have reasonable doubts about the Fed's ability to reach the higher target or about the willingness of the Congress or future Fed policymakers to support a higher inflation goal, both of which would reduce the credibility of the new target and thus its ability to influence expectations.
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