Central Bankers Should Weigh GDP Targeting, Woodford Says

Central bankers should adopt a clear policy goal, such as the path for nominal gross domestic product, to make remaining easing options more effective under the limits of near-zero interest rates, according to Michael Woodford, a professor of political economy at Columbia University.

Such criteria would increase the impact of efforts to reset public expectations for interest rate policy, such as asset-purchases, Woodford said. Federal Reserve policy makers have kept the benchmark rate near zero since December 2008 and this month reiterated a plan to keep borrowing costs at record lows through at least late 2014.

“A more useful form of forward guidance, I believe, would be one that emphasizes the target criterion that will be used to determine when it is appropriate to raise the federal funds rate target above its current level, rather than estimates of the ‘lift-off’ date,” Woodford said in a paper presented today at the Fed’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

A pledge to restore nominal GDP “to the trend path it had been on up until the fall of 2008” would “make it clear that policy will have to remain looser in the near term” than indicated by the Taylor rule, he said. It would also “provide assurance that the unusually stimulative current policy stance does not imply any intention to tolerate continuing inflation above the Fed’s declared long-run inflation target.”

John Taylor, an economist at Stanford University, published in 1993 an interest-rate formula known as the Taylor rule, which measures where a central bank should set its policy rate based on inflation and growth. The Fed has an inflation target of 2 percent.

Damaging Confidence

Forecasts to keep interest rates low without criteria like the nominal GDP target risk damaging confidence because they may be interpreted as a prediction of declining economic growth, Woodford said.

Such information, “if believed, should have a contractionary rather than an expansionary effect,” he said.

Policy makers should combine the announcement of a target with “measures that would create immediate movement” toward accomplishing the goal, Woodford said.

So-called quantitative easing, or asset purchases, is often viewed as “the obvious way” for central bankers to show determination to boost the economy, though buying Treasury securities hasn’t been shown to be that effective at increasing total spending, Woodford said. Such purchases may provide easing by changing policy expectations, he said.

Send Signal

“But if a central bank’s intention in announcing such purchases is to send such a signal, the signal would seem more likely to have the desired effect if accompanied by explicit forward guidance, rather than regarded as a substitute for it,” Woodford said.

“A more logical policy would rely on a combination of commitment to a clear target criterion to guide future decisions about interest-rate policy with immediate policy actions that should stimulate spending immediately without relying too much on expectational channels,” Woodford said.

The Fed has carried out two rounds of bond purchases known as quantitative easing to reduce borrowing costs. In the first round starting in 2008, the Fed bought $1.25 trillion of mortgage-backed securities, $175 billion of federal agency debt and $300 billion of Treasuries. In the second round, announced in November 2010, the Fed bought $600 billion of Treasuries.

Policies that target specific credit areas, such as buying mortgage-backed securities, or the Bank of England’s Funding for Lending Scheme, may be more effective at boosting spending, though they are “more properly” viewed as fiscal as opposed to monetary stimulus, he said.

Combining central bankers’ nominal GDP target would also “increase the bang for the buck from fiscal stimulus” while limiting inflation concerns, Woodford said. “The most obvious recipe for success is one that requires coordination between the monetary and the fiscal authorities.”

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