Monday, March 03, 2008
On this day:

Is the Federal Reserve repeating the mistakes of the '70's?

Allan H. Meltzer considers the recent policies of our "independent" Fed in the Wall Street Journal (H/T Greg Mankiw):
One lesson of the inflationary 1970s: A country that will not accept the possibility of a small recession will end up having a big one when the politicians at last respond to the public's complaints about inflation. Instead of paying the relatively small cost of a possible recession, the public pays the much larger cost of sustained inflation and a deeper recession. And enduring the deeper recession is the only way to convince the public that the Fed has at last decided to slow inflation.

Economic forecasts are not very accurate; still, the International Monetary Fund, the Congressional Budget Office and even the Federal Reserve do not forecast recession in 2008. The Fed thinks that the unemployment rate may rise to 5.3%, below the postwar average. In any event, it cannot do much to change economic activity or unemployment experienced in the next few months, and the Fed anticipates stronger growth in the second half of the year. Why the haste to cut interest rates drastically?

The freezing up of short-term financial markets called for more borrowing. The Fed's response was creative and correct. It recognized that its responsibility as lender of last resort required bold action to maintain the payments system; and it delivered.

But the rush to bring real short-term interest rates to negative values is an unseemly and dangerous response to pressures from Wall Street, Congress and the administration.
Robert Samuelson adds (again, H/T to Greg Mankiw):

Since August, the Fed has been under enormous pressure to ease money and credit. It has. The overnight Fed funds rate has fallen from 5.25 percent in early September to 3 percent now. Politicians are clamoring for the Fed to prevent a recession. Banks and other financial institutions want cheaper credit to enable them to offset losses on subprime mortgages. There is fear of a wider economic crisis if large losses erode confidence and, by depleting the capital of banks and other financial institutions, undermine their ability and willingness to lend and invest.

Unfortunately, the Fed shows signs of overreacting to these pressures and repeating the great blunder of the 1970s. Underestimating inflation then, the Fed repeatedly shoved out too much money and credit in a vain effort to keep the economy near "full employment." Now, switch to the present. Again, the Fed has underestimated inflation. It expected the economic slowdown to suppress inflation spontaneously. But so far, the lower inflation hasn't materialized in part because, outside of housing, there hasn't been much of an economic slowdown.

It's true that the Fed is treading the proverbial tightrope. No one wants a financial crisis; but no one should want the return of stagflation either. The American economy -- a marvelous but flawed engine of wealth -- periodically goes to speculative or inflationary excesses. If most of those excesses aren't given the time to self-correct, we may be trading modest pain today for much greater pain tomorrow. Trying to prevent a recession at all costs is a fool's errand that could ultimately backfire on us all.