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Why We Can't Believe the Fed

Author: Benn Steil, Senior Fellow and Director of International Economics
February 22, 2012
Wall Street Journal

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The Federal Reserve's interest rate-setting Open Market Committee recently broke new ground in Chairman Ben Bernanke's transparency campaign by proffering predictions of its own behavior over the next three years. This is a huge innovation for the Fed, which has never predicted economic data it directly controls.

The idea was first to anchor market expectations that short-term rates will stay at historic lows, thereby encouraging investors and companies to move more aggressively into longer-term, riskier assets with higher expected returns—which the Fed hopes will fuel economic growth. But the Fed also set for itself a formal, long-run inflation target of 2%.

Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation is currently running at 2.9%; so-called core inflation, excluding energy and food prices, at 2.3%. The 2% target was meant to reassure the market that the Fed's expectation of continued low rates does not imply a reduced commitment to price stability.

If the Fed has a good handle on where the economy is heading over the next several years, then its pledges of extended low rates and a 2% inflation target imply little risk of its needing to change course and jar the markets. But how good is the Fed's actual track record on predicting the economy?

The Fed studied its own staff's forecasting performance over the period 1986 to 2006. It found that the average root mean squared error—or the deviation from the actual result—for the staff's next-year gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts was 1.34, compared with 1.29 by what the Fed describes as a "large group" of private forecasters. That is, the Fed's predicting performance was worse than that of market-watchers outside the Fed. For next-year CPI forecasts, the error term was 1.03 for Fed staff, and only 0.93 for private forecasters. The Fed's conclusion? In its own words, its "historical forecast errors are large in economic terms."

How about the Fed's longer-term predictions? The Fed started publishing the Board of Governors' and Reserve Banks' three-year forecasts in October 2007. At that time, the GDP growth forecasts among this group of 17 ranged from 2.2% to 2.7%. Actual 2010 GDP growth was 3%, outside the Fed's range.

The Fed forecasters told us that unemployment in 2010 would be in a range between 4.6% and 5%. In fact, it averaged about twice that, or 9.6%. The forecasters further predicted that both Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation (PCE, similar to CPI) and core PCE inflation would be in a range from 1.5% and 2%. The former came in at 1.3% and the latter at 1%, again outside the Fed's range. The Fed's scorecard on its 2007 three-year forecasts: 0 for 4.

In short, the Fed's premise that it can speak with authority about the future is flawed. During the two decades to 2006, its own experts were worse than outside ones in predicting one-year economic data. Since the start of the crisis in 2007, its three-year predictions have been worthless.

This means Mr. Bernanke's new transparency campaign actually injects significant new risks into the business of Fed-watching. Earlier Open Market Committee statements carried a warning that "future policy adjustments will depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth, as implied by incoming information." The Fed is now saying something entirely different: that it is confident that incoming information will not materially change the Fed's current expectations—which justifies keeping policy constant over the next three years.

Yet since history flatly contradicts the notion that the Fed can safely pledge interest rates three years out, there is a significant likelihood that the credibility of the Fed's new inflation target will crumble, as it keeps interest rates down despite rising prices, or that its effort to persuade the market that rates will stay near zero will end in shambles.

Lurking uncomfortably in the background is the fact that six of the 17 Fed officials whom the Fed asked for predictions actually think that interest rates will need to rise by 2013, and three of those six believe the rise should actually come this year. Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Plosser drew attention to the growing split in the committee on Jan. 30 by insisting that the Open Market Committee rate statement was "not a commitment" and was "contingent on the evolution of the economy"—which is precisely the old Fed mantra.

There is a sense that what Mr. Bernanke is calling transparency is in fact an ill-conceived effort to bind dissidents on the committee closer to his own views. I suspect the result of the effort will be very different: to increase the level of distrust in the markets surrounding official Fed targets and expectations.

Mr. Steil is director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and a co-winner of the 2010 Hayek Book Prize.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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