A: I would not start with the notion of what should we be looking at in terms of our inflation target. I would back up one step and say we should be thinking about the issue of the zero lower bound and what is the risk that in the next recession we could be pushed back to the zero lower bound, and then how do we feel about that and how do we feel about whether we have sufficient instruments to sort of manage that process... You really want to evaluate what are the tools we have to generate an economic recovery after the next recession if we are actually pinned at the zero lower bound. I think we are in some ways in better shape today than we were 10 years ago, because we actually have policies that we have pursued that I think have proven to be effective — namely forward guidance and quantitative easing. In some ways the risk of inflation expectations becoming un-anchored to the downside, which is one of the big risks of being pinned at the zero lower bound, that seems diminished relative to where we were 10 years ago in my opinion. But don’t get me wrong. This is definitely worth evaluating. This is a key issue for monetary policy. At the same time I don’t want to overstate the degree of concern I have. Because remember we have only been pinned at the zero lower bound once, in the post world war two period. That is a period of 70 years and we have only had one experience. I don’t want to totally upend monetary policy because of concerns we might go back to the zero lower bound, because I would worry a little bit that I was fighting the last war.
Q: The reason people say you would not be fighting the last war is this debate we have just been discussing, which is that r* is going to stay low . . .
A: But we don’t know that yet. We don’t know what the terminal federal funds point is going to be in this particular business cycle . . . There is a presumption it will be low and there is a presumption we will not have that much room to lower it, but we don’t really know that yet. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I think it is completely reasonable to evaluate all this and I think we have to really study it very carefully but I don’t think we want to jump to conclusions just because we got pinned at the zero lower bound in the last crisis and I don’t think we want to conclude that r* is necessarily depressed permanently and that has some long term consequences for monetary policy. In terms of my own thought process on this I guess thinking about a price level targeting regime is something worthy of evaluating. Ben Bernanke has proposed an asymmetric price level targeting regime where you basically make up shortfalls when you are running below your inflation target but don’t make up shortfalls when you are running above.
Q: Kind of complicated . . .
A: . . . on the downside it is complicated but I understand why he is proposing it that way. Price level targeting does have some attractive features ... that will help keep inflation expectations better anchored and that makes it more easy to actually recover from an economic downturn. So that is one thing to look at.
Another thing to look at is should we have a range for the inflation rate rather than just a 2 per cent target? I think the 2 per cent objective is a little bit overly precise. I think almost never will actually be right spot on the 2 per cent objective. It would be worth at least evaluating whether a range might be a more appropriate way to communicate how well we want to do, or how well we think it is feasible to do in terms of our inflation target.
Q: A range from 1 to 3 [per cent]?
A: Let’s say from 1.5 to 2.5 [per cent]. The idea would be when you are at 1.5 to 2.5 [per cent] you are not very concerned. It is pretty close to your definition of price stability. But if you get outside of that range on either side you become more concerned. That would be something worthy of evaluating.
Moving from a 2 per cent inflation target to a 4 per cent inflation target: I personally think that is a bridge too far for two reasons. Number one the mandate for us is not set by the Fed it is set by Congress, and Congress has said price stability. I think it is very hard to pretend that 4 per cent inflation is consistent with price stability. And two if you actually had a 4 per cent inflation target it would start to distort economic decision-making. Think about it: at 2 per cent inflation the price level doubles every 35 years. At 4 per cent inflation it doubles twice as fast. That then really has consequences for retirees and businesses and investors. So I think I would be at this point at least pretty sceptical of the wisdom of moving to a higher inflation target.
Q: The Fed is supposed to be targeting 2 per cent currently, at any given time; is there any argument that you could target 2 per cent over the course of a cycle? That would get you towards this idea of a price level target without formally moving to a price level target, because you are looking at an average over time?
A: You could potentially have something that was sort of a soft version of price level targeting. The problem with price level targeting if you actually move to that formally is it raises a lot of questions. If you overshoot inflation how quickly do you have to bring inflation back to your 2 per cent average. If you had a more general thing that our goal is to achieve 2 per cent inflation over the medium to longer run that could be maybe a softer version of price level targeting, without having to describe all the nuances. One of the challenges of price level targeting is how do you communicate it? And the second challenge of price level targeting is if you do the symmetric version it is attractive when you undershoot inflation that you want to overshoot inflation. It is not so attractive that when you overshoot inflation you want to undershoot inflation. You want to undershoot inflation then the zero lower bound problem reasserts itself. That is really the problem of symmetric price level targeting. You are comfortable overshooting after you undershoot, you are not very comfortable if you have overshot to undershoot.