Memo To The Fed: Stop Those Rate Cuts – Pacific Research Institute

Memo To The Fed: Stop Those Rate Cuts

The markets rallied last Tuesday in response to the Fed’s growing assistance to holders of mortgage-backed securities. Yet many onlookers are convinced that an aggressive cut in the federal funds rate at the upcoming March 18 meeting is still necessary to avoid a painful recession. In our view, further loosening at this time would be a mistake, and would also send an alarming signal regarding future monetary policy.

The Fed needs to quit chasing declining GDP growth and instead focus on curbing inflation and anchoring inflation expectations. Recent allusions to the stagflation of the 1970s are appropriate. Gold has been hitting all-time nominal highs, and oil prices have shattered the inflation-adjusted record set in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis. The dollar, meanwhile, is trading at all-time lows against the euro.

Consumer price inflation was 4.1% in 2007 (the highest in 17 years) while the producer price index rose 7.4%–the most since 1981. Amid these alarming trends on the inflation side, output has stalled. Real GDP grew at a meager rate of 0.6% in the last quarter of 2007, and the private sector shed 101,000 jobs in February. The beginnings of stagflation are upon us.

In response, the Fed has slashed its target rate 2.25 percentage points since September, and has engaged in all manner of novel auction schemes to bolster liquidity, particularly among those holding the bag on soured mortgages. Yet despite momentary blips upward, the stock market and the overall economy continue to slide. Even as the Fed’s actions pushed many short-term interest rates below the inflation rate, fixed mortgage rates have begun rising. As inflation expectations gather steam, the Fed will find itself painted into an ever-shrinking corner.

The explanation for all of this is simple yet sobering.

The Fed has abandoned the one thing it can truly control–the long-run increase in price levels–in a self-defeating attempt to keep the economy growing. A good portion of the housing mess itself is the result of Fed policy: In response to the 2000-2001 recession, chairman Alan Greenspan brought the federal funds rate down to a shocking 1% by June 2003, then held it there for a full year. The rate was then steadily ratcheted back up, reaching 5.25% by June 2006.

These actions first helped inflate the home-price bubble and then helped burst it. Naturally, there are many factors–and perhaps even villains–that helped create the housing bubble, but excessively low interest rates were surely a necessary ingredient.

Regardless of past mistakes, the Fed must now make the best of a bad situation. It must stop chasing the financial markets, and even the broader economy. Creating more dollar bills will not add to the nation’s wealth, or make workers more productive.

The alleged trade-off between inflation and unemployment–the Phillips Curve–is no guide for action. Yes, an unexpected injection of new money can temporarily boost real output. But once people come to expect the higher rates of price inflation, the Phillips Curve simply shifts; it takes greater and greater injections to achieve the same stimulus. That is how a country becomes trapped in a stagflation spiral.

The painful and costly recessions of the early 1980s were the result of the inflationary policies of the Fed during the 1970s. In contrast, Fed policies during the 1980s and 1990s focused on curbing inflation and maintaining price stability; this shift in focus produced both low inflation and strong, steady real growth. It would be a terrible mistake to throw out that costly victory in an effort to avoid a recession today–one that’s already baked in the cake.

The Fed should commit to long-term price stability, and it needs to back up that commitment with action. Recessions will always be with us, but they will be shallow and short when the Fed keeps inflation low and evenly paced. If the Fed continues cutting rates, we will simply get the worst of both worlds: prolonged recession and excessive inflation.

Robert P. Murphy is a senior fellow in business and economic studies at the Pacific Research Institute. Lee Hoskins is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and a former Cleveland Federal Reserve president.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top