Quartz #27—>Three Big Questions for Larry Summers, Janet Yellen, and Anyone Else Who Wants to Head the Fed

Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 27th Quartz column, "Three big questions for Larry Summers, Janet Yellen, and anyone else who wants to head the Fed,“ now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. It was first published on July 31, 2013. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© July 31, 2013: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2014. All rights reserved.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the miserable performance of the US economy since then made the Federal Reserve look bad. And almost everything the Federal Reserve has done since then to try to get the economy back on track—from the role it took in the Wall Street bailouts (detailed in David Wessel’s book In Fed We Trust), to dramatically increasing the money supply, to quantitative easing—has also made the Fed look bad.

Despite how bad the Fed’s performance looks, things could have been worsemuch worse—and I have argued that Ben Bernanke, who led the Fed through this difficult time, should be given a third term as head of the Fed. But as President Obama has made very clear, that is not going to happen.

Now there are rival campaigns for who will follow Bernanke as Fed chief, with former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen as the leading candidates. Ezra Klein has repeatedly written on Wonkblog that Obama’s inner circle favors Summers, and Senate Democrats were galvanized by the prospect to write a letter favoring Yellen, followed a few days later by a New York Times editorial board weighing in strongly for Yellen. Much of the discussion has focused on personality differences that I can verify: Larry Summers was one of my professors in economics graduate school and I had a memorable dinner talking about the economics of happiness with Janet Yellen and her Nobel-laureate-to-be husband George Akerlof when I gave a talk at Berkeley in 2006.

I distilled my own observations into tweets saying on the one hand that “Larry Summers can dominate a room full of very smart economists” while “Janet Yellen, like her husband George Akerlof, is one of the nicest economists I have ever met.” Despite that personal knowledge, and the same publicly available information as everyone else, I had to confess on a HuffPost Live segment on July 25, 2013, that my own views on the relative merits of Summers and Yellen go back and forth on an hourly basis. The source of my trouble is this: there are many questions Larry Summers has studiously avoided addressing about monetary policy (Neil Irwin in Wonkblog thinks this is a deliberate, but flawed strategy) and even Yellen, who has an extensive and laudable record on past and current monetary policy and financial stability policy, hasn’t answered all the questions I have about the future of monetary policy and policy to enhance financial stability. On financial stability, Summers has made mistakes in the past (helpfully listed by Erika Eichelberger at motherjones.com), so I especially want to know where he would go in the future in this important function of the Fed.

The questions I would like to ask Larry Summers and Janet Yellen are many, but let’s focus on three big ones:

  1. Eliminating the “Zero Lower Bound” on Interest Rates. Given all of the problems that a floor of zero on short-term interest rates causes for monetary policy, what do you think of going to negative short-term interest rates, as I have argued for here and here and here? If we repealed the “zero lower bound” that prevents interest rates from going below zero, there would be no need to rely on the large scale purchases of long-term government debt that are a mainstay of “quantitative easing,” the quasi-promises of zero interest rates for years and years that go by the name of “forward guidance,” or inflation to make those zero rates more potent. Repealing the “zero lower bound” would require  dramatic changes in monetary policy (and in particular, a dramatic change in the way we handle paper currency), but wouldn’t that be worth it?
  2. Nominal GDP Targeting. What do you think of clarifying monetary policy by guiding short-term interest rates by the velocity-adjusted-money-supply (nominal GDP) targets recommended by the Market Monetarists, combined with regular, explicit forecasts for how high GDP can go without raising inflation?  (See “This Economic Theory was Born in the Blogosphere and Could Save the Markets from Collapse.”) In hindsight, it is clear that the Fed should have acted more quickly, and done more, to get the US economy out of the slump the financial crisis put it in. During that time, the behavior of the velocity-adjusted money supply clearly indicated that more monetary stimulus was needed. Wouldn’t it make sense to pay more attention to an indicator that does well both in ordinary times and when the economy faces a crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression—and move away from the faulty reliance some of those who vote in the Fed’s monetary policy committee put on non-velocity-adjusted money supply numbers?
  3. High Equity Requirements for Banks and Other Financial Firms.What do you think of what Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig have to say about financial regulation in their book The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do About ItTheir argument comes down to this: despite all of the efforts of bankers and the rest of the financial industry to obscure the issues, it all comes down to making sure banks are taking risks with their own money—that is, funds provided by stockholders—rather than with taxpayers’ or depositors’ money. For that purpose, there is no good substitute to requiring that a large share of the funds banks and other financial firms work with come from stockholders. (For follow-up questions on financial regulation, Admati and Hellwig have an invaluable cheatsheet.)

Any serious candidate for the Fed who gives positive answers to these three questions will have my enthusiastic support, and I hope, the enthusiastic support of all those who have a deep understanding of monetary policy and financial stability. But any candidate for the Fed who gives negative answers to these three questions will be indicating a monetary policy and financial stability philosophy that would leave the economy in continued danger of slow growth (with little room for error) and high unemployment in the short run, and the virtual certainty of another serious financial crisis a decade or two down the road.

Update: I am delighted that Gerald Seib and David Wessel flagged this column in their August 2, 2013 Wall Street Journal “What We’re Reading”feature. They write

University of Michigan economist Miles Kimball says the best candidate to take over as leader of the Fed will back negative short-term interest rates, nominal GDP targeting, and high equity requirements for banks and financial firms. If a candidate is chosen who opposes any of these three, Mr. Kimball predicts another serious financial crisis in the next two decades. [Emphasis added.]

In their last sentence, they go beyond what I intend when I write

But any candidate for the Fed who gives negative answers to these three questions will be indicating a monetary policy and financial stability philosophy that would leave the economy in continued danger of slow growth (with little room for error) and high unemployment in the short run, and the virtual certainty of another serious financial crisis a decade or two down the road.

Let me clarify. First, it is not these beliefs by the Fed Chief alone that would lead to a financial crisis, but the philosophy that would answer my three questions in the negative, held more generally—by the Fed Chief and other important players around the world. But of course, the Fed Chief is a hugely important player on the world stage.  Second, I write “who gives negative answers to these three questions” meaning negative answers to all three. To separate out the causality more carefully, what I have in mind with the parallel structure of my final sentence in the column (quoted just above) is 

  1. Rejection of both negative interest rates and nominal GDP targeting—and perhaps rejection of negative interest rates alone—“would leave the economy in continued danger of slow growth (with little room for error) and high unemployment in the short run.”  
  2. Rejection of high equity requirements for banks and other financial firms would lead to “the virtual certainty of another serious financial crisis a decade or two down the road.” 

Outtakes: Here are two passages that I had to cut to tighten things up, but that you may find of some interest:

In brief, the Fed put itself in the position of getting bad results using unpopular methods. By July 2009, the Fed’s job approval rating in a Gallup poll was down to 30%, below the job approval rating for the IRS . By the time of the 2012 presidential election campaign, Republican crowds enthusiastically chanted the title of Republican candidate Ron Paul’s book End the Fed.

…in a 32-second exchange with Charlie Rose that is well worth watching for the nuances, President Obama said “He’s already stayed a lot longer than he wanted, or he was supposed to.” The praise for Bernanke in the Charlie Rose interview is so tepid and ungenerous that my interpretation is the same as US News and World Report editor-in-chief Mortimer Zuckerman’s in his July 25, 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed “Mistreating Ben Bernanke, the Man Who Saved the Economy”: “This comment made it clear that Mr. Bernanke’s days were numbered.”