A Volcker Moment Indeed (Slightly Wonkish) – Paul Krugman

Christina Romer calls on Ben Bernanke to adopt a nominal GDP target, and suggests that he consider himself in a position comparable to that of Paul Volcker — where Volcker took drastic action to fight inflation, Bernanke should do likewise to fight unemployment.

I’m good with that. At the risk of reading the stage instructions, however, let me add that the Volcker parallel may run deeper than most people appreciate.

You see, the early Volcker years were the period when the Fed at least claimed to have become monetarist, to be setting targets for monetary aggregates like M1 and M2 rather than interest rates. It didn’t last long; by the summer of 1982 the Fed had more or less thrown out the monetarist playbook.

Yet the monetarist interval served a purpose: it gave the Fed a usefully euphemistic way to talk about its inflation-fighting strategy. Officials didn’t have to say, “We’re going to push the economy into a deep recession, and keep it there until inflation cries uncle.” Instead, they could talk in terms of M1 growth rates and credible long-run strategies and whatever, while in fact what they were basically doing was pushing the economy into a deep recession and keeping it there until inflation cried uncle.

Nominal GDP targeting is quite a lot like that. To be sure, NGDP is a much better target than M1, which (it turns out) is subject to wide swings in velocity. And the Fed’s goals, if frankly stated, wouldn’t be nearly as politically explosive as what it was doing in 1979-82. Still, NGDP is arguably mainly a relatively palatable way to state a strategy that’s ultimately about something else.

As I see it — and as I suspect many people at the Fed see it — the basic point is that to gain traction in a liquidity trap you must either engage in huge quantitative easing, raise the expected rate of inflation, or both. Yet saying this is very hard; people treat expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet as horrible money-printing, and as for the virtues of inflation, well, wear your body armor.

But say that we need to reverse the obvious shortfall in nominal GDP, and you’ve found a more acceptable way to justify huge quantitative easing and a de facto higher inflation target.

Don’t call it a deception, call it a communications strategy. And as I said, I’m for it.

Source: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/a-volcker-moment-indeed-slightly-wonkish/

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