Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bernanke, Not Borg

. Thursday, April 26, 2012

Krugman has a good NYT Magazine article on Bernanke. They have an interesting personal history -- as Chair of the Econ department at Princeton, Bernanke hired Krugman (over some opposition I believe) -- and also an interesting intellectual history -- they were both working on the Japan deflation in the late-1990s, with Krugman concluding that Old Keynesianism was still relevant because of its emphasis on the liquidity trap, while Bernanke concluded that the Bank of Japan was merely timid, not impotent.

In the article Krugman argues that Chairman Bernanke has not followed the advice of Professor Bernanke. He offers three possible explanations for this.

The Bernanke Conundrum — the divergence between what Professor Bernanke advocated and what Chairman Bernanke has actually done — can be reconciled in a few possible ways. Maybe Professor Bernanke was wrong, and there’s nothing more a policy maker in this situation can do. Maybe politics are the impediment, and Chairman Bernanke has been forced to hide his inner professor. Or maybe the onetime academic has been assimilated by the Fed Borg and turned into a conventional central banker.
The Ludlum-esque title is unnecessary, as the addition to the pile of "Krugman's Mystical Creatures" (confidence fairy, bond market vigilantes, etc.), but I believe Krugman's framing is correct and I think the second explanation makes the most sense: Bernanke is politically constrained (see here). So naturally Krugman concludes that Bernanke's been assimilated into the Borg, thus continuing our long-running streak of disagreeing on almost everything.

Today Krugman finds support for the Borg view in these words from Bernanke:
We have, uh, we, the Federal Reserve, have spent 30 years building up credibility for low and stable inflation, which has proved extremely valuable, in that we’ve been able to take strong accommodative actions in the last four or five years to support the economy without leading to a, [indiscernible] expectations or destabilization of inflation. To risk that asset, for, what I think would be quite tentative and, uh, perhaps doubtful gains, on the real side would be an unwise thing to do.
In some ways Krugman's selection of Bernanke's comments are a bit disingenuous -- Bernanke starts by pointing out that the U.S. in 2010-12 is very different from Japan in the late-1990s, particularly since one was suffering from deflation and a recession while the other just has unemployment a few percentage points higher than it would like -- but more problematic is his interpretation of them. When Bernanke starts talking about the "credibility" of the Fed there is no a priori reason to think that he's only talking about credibility with markets. He's also talking about credibility with Congress, and in particular a Congress that is incredibly hawkish on inflation lately* and routinely threatens Bernanke in a number of ways.

The Fed likes its authority. It wants to keep it. It likes it's "independence". Ironically, it will only keep it if it does what Congress wants it to do (i.e. "There is no technocracy" + "There is no central bank independence"... common themes around here). That means not throwing away its credibility for inflation-control in pursuit of dropping the unemployment rate by a point or two. Note that this is also why Bernanke would like to see more fiscal stimulus: that would effectively prevent Bernanke from having to make a difficult choice. But if he's forced to make that choice, he'll the choose the path that doesn't jeopardize his authority.

Note: after I wrote the above, but before publishing it, I came across this excellent post by Greg Ip. Highlights:
This means, judging from the projections, that 13 of the FOMC’s 17 members want to tighten sooner than he does, and none want to tighten later. ...

The second problem is that even if Mr Bernanke’s views prevail while he remains chairman, the odds are that he no longer will be after January, 2014. He is unlikely to be reappointed even if Barack Obama is re-elected (even if wanted the job, a big if, he probably couldn’t be confirmed), and certain not to be if Mitt Romney wins.
But all that's irrelevant. Instead, Bernanke's been captured by the Borg.

*Some of the reasons for that may be found in this excellent post by Steve Randy Waldman. I hope to have more to say about it soon, but for now it's worth reading that one in its entirety. The takeaway is that the coalition of political interests that would be harmed by higher inflation is much larger (and much more politically active) than the coalition that would benefit from it.

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Bernanke, Not Borg
 

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