Global economy watchers and market participants will be paying a lot of attention this week to how the US Federal Reserve describes the American economic outlook, to the magnitude of its interest rate increase and whether it changes the pace of its balance-sheet contraction. Yet, for the well-being of the US and also the global economy in general, the answer to these questions is less important than whether the Fed shows seriousness about fixing four significant failures that continue to fuel one of the country’s worse policy mistakes in decades: Failures of analysis, forecasts, response and communication.
Let us first dispose with what seems to interest economists and markets the most right now.
On the economic outlook, the US Fed will likely acknowledge that, once again, inflation has proven to be higher and more stubborn than projected, and that, despite some signs of weakness, the American economy remains in a “good place.” With that said, it is likely to again lift rates by 75 basis points and leave unchanged its previously announced plans for quantitative tightening.
This will come as a relief to those worried that the US Fed, playing a desperate game of catch-up, would raise rates by 100 basis points and worsen what is already an uncomfortably high risk of tipping the US economy into recession.
Yet, such relief will again prove fleeting, unless the Fed also regains policy credibility by addressing its four big persistent failures.
The first is a failure of analysis. The Fed has yet to make the comprehensive analytical shift from a world dominated for years by deficient aggregate demand to the current one, where deficient aggregate supply plays an important role in shaping outcomes. Its monetary policy approach is either still formally governed by the “new framework” adopted last year. [While it shifted its inflation target to an average 2% over a period of time, instead of 2%, the framework] is no longer suitable and should be publicly discarded. Either that, or US monetary policy should be governed by no framework at all, which would leave the US and global economy without a much-needed anchor.
The result of the Fed’s analytical failure is a central bank that continuously struggles to properly inform and influence economic agents, that consistently lags behind markets rather than leads them, and that could easily fall prey to the even more catastrophic policy mistake of returning to the 1970s trap of ‘stop-go’ policies.
For an illustration of the inadequate Fed policy anchor, consider the recent implied market forecast of what it will announce on Wednesday. In just a few days, the probability of the Fed raising by a highly unusual 100 basis points went from insignificant to even odds and then down again to improbable.
The longer the Fed resists an overdue analytical pivot, the more its inflation and growth forecasts will continue to miss the mark, exacerbating the second failure. For the last few quarters, such projections have been quickly and correctly dismissed as unrealistic by a wide range of economists, market analysts and, even more unusual, former Fed officials. This matters even more now that the US economy is showing signs not just of weakening but also of flirting with a recession.
Third, the Fed must be more agile in its policy responses. It is now widely agreed that, after sticking for way too long to its misguided “transitory” inflation call, it should have responded more forcefully when it finally “retired” this faulty characterization. This was confirmed by former Vice Chair Randal Quarles the week before last, who also referred to the concern that I and many other analysts hold, that the Fed remains co-opted by financial markets.
Finally, the Fed must be more straightforward in its communication. It seems to remain the central bank in advanced countries that is most prone to, using a phrase from former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, “fairy tale economics”; and it is the most systemically important of all these central banks.
Regardless of what the US Fed does next week, without addressing these four deficiencies, the American central bank will continue to lack the credibility needed to avoid being remembered by economic historians as having unnecessarily caused a US recession; having destabilized a global economy still trying to recover from the covid pandemic; having worsened inequality; having fuelled unsettling financial instability; and having contributed to debt stress in fragile developing countries.
Mohamed A. El-Erian is president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and a former chief executive officer of Pimco
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