miércoles, 29 de junio de 2011

The Intimidated Fed


Last month more than 14 million Americans were unemployed by the official definition — that is, seeking work but unable to find it. Millions more were stuck in part-time work because they couldn’t find full-time jobs. And we’re not talking about temporary hardship. Long-term unemployment, once rare in this country, has become all too normal: More than four million Americans have been out of work for a year or more.

Given this dismal picture, you might have expected unemployment, and what to do about it, to have been a major focus of Wednesday’s press conference with Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve. And it should have been. But it wasn’t.

After the conference, Reuters put together a “word cloud” of Mr. Bernanke’s remarks, a visual representation of the frequency with which he used various words. The cloud is dominated by the word “inflation.” “Unemployment,” in much smaller type, is tucked in the background.

This misplaced emphasis wasn’t entirely Mr. Bernanke’s fault, since he was responding to questions — and those questions focused much more on inflation than on unemployment. But that focus was, in itself, a symptom of the extent to which Washington has lost interest in the plight of the unemployed. And the Bernanke Fed, which should be taking a firm stand against these skewed priorities, is instead letting itself be bullied into following the herd.

Some background: The Fed normally takes primary responsibility for short-term economic management, using its influence over interest rates to cool the economy when it’s running too hot, which raises the threat of inflation, and to heat it up when it’s running too cold, leading to high unemployment. And the Fed has more or less explicitly indicated what it considers a Goldilocks outcome, neither too hot nor too cold: inflation at 2 percent or a bit lower, unemployment at 5 percent or a bit higher.

But Goldilocks has left the building, and shows no sign of returning soon. The Fed’s latest forecasts, unveiled at that press conference, show low inflation and high unemployment for the foreseeable future.

True, the Fed expects inflation this year to run a bit above target, but Mr. Bernanke declared (and I agree) that we’re looking at a temporary bulge from higher raw material prices; measures of underlying inflation remain well below target, and the forecast sees inflation falling sharply next year and remaining low at least through 2013.

Meanwhile, as I’ve already pointed out, unemployment — although down from its 2009 peak — remains devastatingly high. And the Fed expects only slow improvement, with unemployment at the end of 2013 expected to still be around 7 percent.

It all adds up to a clear case for more action. Yet Mr. Bernanke indicated that he has done all he’s likely to do. Why?

He could have argued that he lacks the ability to do more, that he and his colleagues no longer have much traction over the economy. But he didn’t. On the contrary, he argued that the Fed’s recent policy of buying long-term bonds, generally referred to as “quantitative easing,” has been effective. So why not do more?

Mr. Bernanke’s answer was deeply disheartening. He declared that further expansion might lead to higher inflation.

What you need to bear in mind here is that the Fed’s own forecasts say that inflation will be below target over the next few years, so that some rise in inflation would actually be a good thing, not a reason to avoid tackling unemployment. Those forecasts could, of course, be wrong, but they could be too high as well as too low.

The only way to make sense of Mr. Bernanke’s aversion to further action is to say that he’s deathly afraid of overshooting the inflation target, while being far less worried about undershooting — even though doing too little means condemning millions of Americans to the nightmare of long-term unemployment.

What’s going on here? My interpretation is that Mr. Bernanke is allowing himself to be bullied by the inflationistas: the people who keep seeing runaway inflation just around the corner and are undeterred by the fact that they keep on being wrong.

Lately the inflationistas have seized on rising oil prices as evidence in their favor, even though — as Mr. Bernanke himself pointed out — these prices have nothing to do with Fed policy. The way oil prices are coloring the discussion led the economist Tim Duy to suggest, sarcastically, that basic Fed policy is now to do nothing about unemployment “because some people in the Middle East are seeking democracy.”

But I’d put it differently. I’d say that the Fed’s policy is to do nothing about unemployment because Ron Paul is now the chairman of the House subcommittee on monetary policy.

So much for the Fed’s independence. And so much for the future of America’s increasingly desperate jobless.

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