The monetary economics of Scott Sumner

Here is my latest column, on the monetary proposals of Scott Sumner.  You probably know Sumner from his blog TheMoneyIllusion and in my view he has become possibly the most astute commentator on monetary policy at this time.  Excerpt:

The Fed has already taken some unconventional monetary measures to
stimulate the economy, but they haven’t been entirely effective.
Professor Sumner says the central bank needs to take a different
approach: it should make a credible commitment to spurring and
maintaining a higher level of inflation, promising to use newly created
money to buy many kinds of financial assets if necessary. And it should
even pay negative interest on bank reserves, as the Swedish central
bank has started to do. In essence, negative interest rates are a
penalty placed on banks that sit on their money instead of lending it.

to the chagrin of Professor Sumner, the Fed has been practicing the
opposite policy recently, by paying positive interest on bank reserves
– essentially, inducing banks to hoard money.

The Fed’s balance
sheet need not swell to accomplish these aims. Once people believe that
inflation is coming, they will be willing to spend more money.

other words, if the Fed announces a sufficient willingness to undergo
extreme measures to create price inflation, it may not actually have to
do so. Professor Sumner’s views differ from the monetarism of Milton Friedman by emphasizing expectations rather than any particular measure of the money supply.

There are more excellent posts on Scott's blog than I am able to link to.  Read through it all, if you have any interest in these topics. 

One thing I learned from a systematic reread of Sumner is that he isn't quite the advocate of quantitative easing that I had thought.  All things considered, he seems to favor QE over doing nothing, but he also thinks that a truly credible commitment to future inflation can get us there without much painful-for-the-Fed's-balance-sheet QE being required.

While I think there is a very good chance Sumner is correct, my reread of his blog also gave me a better sense of, if he is wrong, why he is wrong or maybe incomplete is a better word.

In very general terms, think of our government, or central bank, as being able to do some good things by creating credibility, the rule of law being one example.  In this particular case the Fed could use its credibility to guarantee two to three percent price inflation annually or more exactly some target for nominal GDP growth.

One point is that bureaucracies tend to hoard credibility rather than to spend it.  That still could mean Sumner's advice is correct and this is simply why the Fed doesn't follow it.  There is, however, a deeper worry.  One possibility is that a weakened Fed cannot today precommit to delivering on two to three percent.  Let's say that Congress gets upset along the way, for whatever reason.  The Fed has then put its credibility on the line, including for the longer future, and that credibility is utterly refuted.  Ouch.  More technically, combine the two ideas of self-fulfilling prophecies and nested games.

Maybe the Fed is too risk-averse but there's also the possibility that the Fed is prudent in its unwillingness to stick its neck out.  Maybe the Fed has credibility only as long as it doesn't try to spend it (try modeling that).  This would bring us into the literature on creative ambiguity and signaling.

Another possibility is that, instead of Congress intervening, markets simply don't respond.  Sumner's theory makes sense to me, but how certain can we be?  The Fed again is putting a lot of longer-term credibility on the line.  Maybe the best the Fed can do is a kind of "inch-along" promise, which probably won't be very effective, as we are observing.

Perhaps the key question is just how credible a central bank can be, relative to its (possibly unjustified) risk aversion.

I now read Sumner much more as a "theorist of credibility," and thus as an implicit game theorist, than I used to. 


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