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MUCH as I sympathise with the Federal Reserve (Fed) as it grapples with an economy in extremely trying circumstances, I believe it could be doing better in one crucial respect: helping financial markets to align their expectations with its thinking.
Analysts could be forgiven for saying that the Fed just aligned itself with them, rather than the other way around.
It raised its policy rate by 75 basis points this week, not by the 50 points previously advertised.
After the unexpectedly high inflation figure for the year to May was published last week, analysts abruptly called for a bigger rate increase.
The Fed, reversing its earlier guidance, duly delivered. You might wonder, who’s in charge?
To be clear, if financial markets were merely anticipating the policy rate demanded by changing financial conditions, given the Fed’s understanding of its job, that would be fine.
Actually, if markets were pre-aligning themselves with policy makers’ declared ends and means, that would be ideal: The Fed does its job, and the markets help by correctly predicting its judgements.
At the moment, though, any such interpretation is quite a stretch – because the supporting analysis, from Fed and commentators alike, betrays confusion over those very ends and means.
Consider the obsessive focus, ahead of the announcement, on whether the policy rate should rise by 50 or 75 basis points.
In itself, that margin is of vanishingly small economic significance.
It matters only because of all the other things it might or might not say about the Fed’s calculations.
Has the central bank changed its understanding of the processes driving inflation – on the basis, by the way, of very little new information?
Has it changed how it balances its dual mandate – that is, does it now care more about lowering inflation than about maintaining high employment? (If so, why?)
Has it changed the timeframe over which it proposes to get inflation back under control, or about the projected policy rates needed to get inflation down as originally intended, or both?
The answer to all these questions is, who knows? And it’s little short of absurd that the choice between 50 and 75 basis points raises them in the first place.
All by itself, that ought to tell the Fed that its messaging is failing – and making a difficult job even harder.
Current monetary policy has to contend with two fundamental problems. The first is a series of unprecedentedly large and complex supply shocks.
The other is a legacy policy framework that was (arguably) well-suited to persistently less-than-target inflation but is badly suited to these new conditions.