Federal Reserve

One Word Could Be Worth a Million Jobs

How the Fed interprets its employment mandate matters a lot


Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Supporting a strong job market is a big part of the U.S. Federal Reserve's mandate. Fed officials, though, interpret that goal differently than most observers do. For the economy's sake, Congress should step in to resolve the discrepancy.

Specifically, the Federal Reserve Act instructs the central bank to promote "maximum employment" and "stable prices." Most people understand these instructions as meaning the Fed should seek to generate as much demand for workers as possible without causing an unduly large increase in prices.

The website of the Fed's Board of Governors, however, makes a slight modification to the jobs mandate: "maximum sustainable employment." Innocuous as it may seem, that one word can make a big difference.

How? Well, suppose inflation is running below the Fed's 2 percent target and the unemployment rate is at 5 percent, which officials consider to be its long-run level (pretty much the current situation). They can choose between two monetary policies, which are expected to result in the following paths for the unemployment rate:

Two Paths for the Unemployment Rate

Most observers would opt for the second policy. It's more aggressive, so it will get inflation back to target sooner. Even better, the unemployment rate is the same or lower every year, and by a significant amount: One percentage point is worth more than a million jobs.

The word "sustainable," however, means that the Fed views any deviation from the long-run unemployment rate -- up or down -- as undesirable. When officials speak of the economy “overheating” or “running hot” in the absence of inflationary pressures, this is what I think they have in mind. So they would see unemployment as running too low under policy 2.

Some Fed officials worry that “overheating” could trigger a recession. (I don’t understand the precise economic mechanism, but let’s leave that aside.) They think policy 2 might generate the following path for the unemployment rate:

Policy 2: Possible Recession Outcome

In 2019 and 2020, the economy falls into recession. From the Fed’s perspective, this unemployment path is terrible, because the rate is either too low or too high for the next four years.

It's easy to imagine, though, that many people would be willing to trade the risk of recessionary pain in 2019 and 2020 for the near-term gain of 2017 and 2018. They might even believe there's some chance that policy 2 will generate an outstanding outcome -- if, for example, the long-run unemployment rate is actually lower than the Fed thinks it is. Here's how that would look:

Policy 2: Low Long-Run Unemployment Outcome

This interpretational divide was on full display last month, when Fed officials met with representatives of the pro-employment activist group Fed Up. The activists largely assumed that the central bank was contemplating near-term interest-rate increases to keep inflation in check. But most of the officials downplayed inflation, invoking instead the need to keep the economy from running too hot (which some said could lead to a recession).

I find it hard to believe that the Fed's approach is consistent with Congress's intent as expressed in the Federal Reserve Act. That said, it's really up to legislators to provide an unequivocal answer, which could matter a lot for the economy over the next few years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Narayana Kocherlakota at nkocherlako1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.