The Case Against Fed Reform
This week the 115th Congress was sworn in, and there are some indications that Fed reform may be on the agenda. The combination of populist anger fueled by Ron Paul’s Presidential campaigns and the 2008 financial crisis coupled with the repeated failings of the Federal Reserve to meet their projections has created a rare window for monetary policy to be both politically advantageous, as well as so obviously needed that even politicians can see it.
The question now is what sort of reform is on the table.
Last Congressional session saw proposals from both the House and the Senate.
From the House we have the FORM Act, which would require the Fed to adopt a monetary policy rule and explain to Congress whenever they deviate from that rule. The FORM Act also calls for an annual GAO audit of the Federal Reserve, doubles the number of times the Fed Chairman testifies before Congress, and makes some other tweaks to the makeup and protocol of the Federal Reserve Board. Since the FORM Act passed the House in 2015, there is a good chance we will see it resurrected in 2017.
On the Senate side, Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby has pushed for the Financial Regulatory Improvement Act. Not only does it lack a catchy acronym, but its reforms to the Fed are far more modest than the FORM Act. The meat of the bill focuses on changes to the Fed board. The head of the New York Fed would no longer be appointed the banks board of the directors, but would instead be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate – just like the Federal Reserve Chairman. It would also grant powers to the Fed’s regional presidents that currently only reside with the board of directors.
Though early drafts of the Senate bill called for the Fed to adopt rules-based monetary policy, this ended up being stripped from the final proposal due to Democratic opposition – largely because much of the Hill focus has been on the Taylor rule, which many Fed advocates fear is too restricting.
The Battle Over the Taylor Rule
Recently this debate has played out in the pages of the Wall Street Journal with Neel Kashkari and John Taylor exchanging op-eds on the virtues of rules-based policy.
Though Kashkari begins with a broad attack on monetary rules, it quickly devolves into a focused attack on the Taylor Rule which he argues “effectively turn[s] monetary policy over to a computer, rather than continue to let Fed policy makers use their best judgment to consider a wide range of data and economic trends.” Of course Kashkari ignores that the “best judgement” of Fed policy makers has been widely criticized – and not just by Austrians who oppose any sort of Fed policy at all.
Kashkari’s allusion to a computer-guided monetary policy is may be an attempt to get readers to conflate recent monetary rules proposals to the views of Milton Friedman that have not aged particularly well. In Taylor’s response, he criticized the portrayal for being dishonest while pointing to various analysis critical of the Fed behavior since the crisis.
What’s more interesting than the finer details of the debate over the relative virtues of the Taylor rule is how that specific proposal has largely been the single focus of those critical of rules-based policy. Though support for the Taylor rule has become largely split on partisan lines, there is another monetary rule that has growing support from across the ideological spectrum.
The Appeal of NGDP Targeting
Following 2008, NGDP targeting has grown from a topic of conversation largely limited to blogs such as Scott Sumner’s The Money Illusion, to something discussed openly among central banks, prominent publications, and even Presidential candidates. The proposal would require a central bank to set a nominal goal for GDP – without taking into account inflation or deflation – and allow it to use a variety of tools to reach that goal. Since the policy gives Fed critics a black and white standard to measure its performance, without putting too many restrictions on the Fed as to ruffle the feathers of Fed proponents, it has been able to build a broad coalition of support. As a result, you have progressives such as Christina Romer and Brad DeLong on the same side as the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center.
Of course widespread appeal is not the same thing as sensible policy. As Shawn Ritenour sums up his brilliant refutation of the proposal:
NGDP targeting advocates end up fostering the monetary illusion that scarcity can be overcome and prosperity can be achieved via monetary inflation.
Unfortunately policy does not have to be sensible to become reality.
Should the House succeed in creating pressure on the Senate to act on a version of the FORM Act, it would not be surprising to see the discussion move away from the Taylor rule to NGDP targeting – with advocates selling its broad appeal as its leading virtue. The Fed Audit, which has consistently been fought by the Senate, could easily be dropped – with Republican legislators being able to point to the endorsement of the beltway’s leading libertarian think tanks as evidence of being tough on the Fed.
The Real Problem with Rules-Based Monetary Policy
Of course no matter if it is NGDP targeting, the Taylor rule, or even a rule that would have the Fed tie itself to gold – the entire debate about rules-based monetary policy ignores the obvious: rules are meant to be broken.
We’ve already seen this play out routinely at the Fed, with both sides of the isle usually accusing the Fed of not upholding one side of its current dual mandate. History is littered with examples of government financial institutions ignoring and modifying rules whenever they directly conflict with the judgment of current leaders. As recently as 2015, the IMF arbitrarily changed a long-standing policy on loan requirements so it could help Ukraine. The US government changed long-standing monetary policy rules when faced with a crisis, such as when it cut the dollar’s connection with gold for both domestic and international payments.
Be it Constitutional rights, contractual obligations, or its own self-imposed rules, when push comes to shove the government officials have proven they will side with their own judgment – no matter what the rule is.
So while there are certainly arguments to be made in favor of a rules-based Fed over the pure discretion of the current PhD standard, such reform should not be viewed as a solution to the real issue, which is a central bank having a monopoly on money at all. Instead of a Fed reform, we need Fed competition: eliminate legal tender laws, remove the burdensome taxes placed on gold, Bitcoin and other potential currencies, and give Americans a true alternative to Federal Reserve notes for those who want it.
Anything short of that continues to let the Fed’s monopoly on money continue, and is therefore no real solution at all.