QE3 is over. Economists will debate the significance of it for some time to come. What sticks out to me now is that it might have been entirely backwards: what if the Fed had set the price instead of the quantity?
To put this in context for those who don’t know the background, let’s talk about carbon cooking the planet. Going back to Weitzman in the 1970s (nice summary by E. Glen Weyl), economists have focused on the relative tradeoff of price versus quantity regulations. We could regulate carbon by changing the price, say through carbon taxes. We could also regulate it by changing the quantity, say by capping the amount of carbon in the air. In theory, these two choices have identical outcomes. But, of course, they don’t. It depends on the risk involved in slight deviations from the goal. If carbon above a certain level is very costly to society, then it’s better to target the quantity rather than the price, hence setting a cap on carbon (and trading it) rather than just taxing it.
This same debate on the tradeoff between price and quantity intervention is relevant for monetary policy, too. And here, I fear the Federal Reserve targeted the wrong one.
Starting in December 2012, the Federal Reserve started buying $45 billion a month of long-term Treasuries. Part of the reason was to push down the interest rates on those Treasuries and boost the economy.
But what if the Fed had done that backwards? What if it had picked a price for long-term securities, and then figured out how much it would have to buy to get there? Then it would have said, “we aim to set the 10-year Treasury rate at 1.5 percent for the rest of the year” instead of “we will buy $45 billion a month of long-term Treasuries.”
This is what the Fed does with short-term interest rates. Taking a random example from 2006, it doesn’t say, “we’ll sell an extra amount in order to raise the interest rate.” Instead, it just declares, “the Board of Governors unanimously approved a 25-basis-point increase in the discount rate to 5-1/2 percent.” It announces the price.
Remember, the Federal Reserve also did QE with mortgage-backed securities, buying $40 billion a month in order to bring down the mortgage rate. But what if it just set the mortgage rate? That’s what Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute (who also helped execute the first QE), argued for in September 2012, when he wrote, “the Fed should promise to hold the prime mortgage rate below 3 percent for at least 12 months. It can do this by unlimited purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities.” (He reiterated that argument to me in 2013.) Set the price, and then commit to unlimited purchases. That’s good advice, and we could have done it with Treasuries as well.
What difference would this have made? The first is that it would be far easier to understand what the Federal Reserve was trying to do over time. What was the deal with the tapering? I’ve read a lot of commentary about it, but I still don’t really know. Do stocks matter, or flows? I’m reading a lot of guesswork. But if the Federal Reserve were to target specific long-term interest rates, it would be absolutely clear what they were communicating at each moment.
The second is that it might have been easier. People hear “trillions of dollars” and think of deficits instead of asset swaps; focusing on rates might have made it possible for people to be less worried about QE. The actual volume of purchases might also have been lower, because the markets are unlikely to go against the Fed on these issues.
And the third is that if low interest rates are the new normal, through secular stagnation or otherwise, these tools will need to be formalized. We should look to avoid the herky-jerky nature of Federal Reserve policy in the past several years, and we can do this by looking to the past.
Policy used to be conducted this way. Providing evidence that there’s been a great loss of knowledge in macroeconomics, JW Mason recently wrote up this great 1955 article by Alvin Hansen (of secular stagnation fame), in which Hansen takes it for granted that economists believe intervention along the entirety of the rate structure is appropriate action.
He even finds Keynes arguing along these lines in The General Theory: “Perhaps a complex offer by the central bank to buy and sell at stated prices gilt-edged bonds of all maturities, in place of the single bank rate for short-term bills, is the most important practical improvement which can be made in the technique of monetary management.”
The normal economic argument against this is that all the action can be done with the short-rate. But, of course, that is precisely the problem at the zero lower bound and in a period of persistent low interest rates.
Sadly for everyone who imagines a non-political Federal Reserve, the real argument is political. And it’s political in two ways. The first is that the Federal Reserve would be accused of planning the economy by setting long-term interest rates. So it essentially has to sneak around this argument by adjusting quantities. But, in a technical sense, they are the same policy. One is just opaque, which gives political cover but is harder for the market to understand.
And the second political dimension is that if the Federal Reserve acknowledges the power it has over interest rates, it also owns the recession in a very obvious way.
This has always been a tension. As Greta R. Krippner found in her excellent Capitalizing on Crisis, in 1982 Frank Morris of the Boston Fed argued against ending their disaster tour with monetarism by saying, “I think it would be a big mistake to acknowledge that we were willing to peg interest rates again. The presence of an [M1] target has sheltered the central bank from a direct sense of responsibility for interest rates.” His view was that the Fed could avoid ownership of the economy if it only just adjusted quantities.
But the Federal Reserve did have ownership then, as it does now. It has tools it can use, and will need to use again. It’s important for it to use the right tools going forward.