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11.2: Problems and Controversies of Monetary Policy

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Explain the three kinds of lags that can influence the effectiveness of monetary policy.
    2. Identify the macroeconomic targets at which the Fed can aim in managing the economy, and discuss the difficulties inherent in using each of them as a target.
    3. Discuss how each of the following influences a central bank’s ability to achieve its desired macroeconomic outcomes: political pressures, the degree of impact on the economy (including the situation of a liquidity trap), and the rational expectations hypothesis.

    The Fed has some obvious advantages in its conduct of monetary policy. The two policy-making bodies, the Board of Governors and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), are small and largely independent from other political institutions. These bodies can thus reach decisions quickly and implement them immediately. Their relative independence from the political process, together with the fact that they meet in secret, allows them to operate outside the glare of publicity that might otherwise be focused on bodies that wield such enormous power.

    Despite the apparent ease with which the Fed can conduct monetary policy, it still faces difficulties in its efforts to stabilize the economy. We examine some of the problems and uncertainties associated with monetary policy in this section.


    Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing the Fed, or any other central bank, is the problem of lags. It is easy enough to show a recessionary gap on a graph and then to show how monetary policy can shift aggregate demand and close the gap. In the real world, however, it may take several months before anyone even realizes that a particular macroeconomic problem is occurring. When monetary authorities become aware of a problem, they can act quickly to inject reserves into the system or to withdraw reserves from it. Once that is done, however, it may be a year or more before the action affects aggregate demand.

    The delay between the time a macroeconomic problem arises and the time at which policy makers become aware of it is called a recognition lag. The 1990–1991 recession, for example, began in July 1990. It was not until late October that members of the FOMC noticed a slowing in economic activity, which prompted a stimulative monetary policy. In contrast, the most recent recession began in December 2007, and Fed easing began in September 2007.

    Recognition lags stem largely from problems in collecting economic data. First, data are available only after the conclusion of a particular period. Preliminary estimates of real GDP, for example, are released about a month after the end of a quarter. Thus, a change that occurs early in a quarter will not be reflected in the data until several months later. Second, estimates of economic indicators are subject to revision. The first estimates of real GDP in the third quarter of 1990, for example, showed it increasing. Not until several months had passed did revised estimates show that a recession had begun. And finally, different indicators can lead to different interpretations. Data on employment and retail sales might be pointing in one direction while data on housing starts and industrial production might be pointing in another. It is one thing to look back after a few years have elapsed and determine whether the economy was expanding or contracting. It is quite another to decipher changes in real GDP when one is right in the middle of events. Even in a world brimming with computer-generated data on the economy, recognition lags can be substantial.

    Only after policy makers recognize there is a problem can they take action to deal with it. The delay between the time at which a problem is recognized and the time at which a policy to deal with it is enacted is called the implementation lag. For monetary policy changes, the implementation lag is quite short. The FOMC meets eight times per year, and its members may confer between meetings through conference calls. Once the FOMC determines that a policy change is in order, the required open-market operations to buy or sell federal bonds can be put into effect immediately.

    Policy makers at the Fed still have to contend with the impact lag, the delay between the time a policy is enacted and the time that policy has its impact on the economy.

    The impact lag for monetary policy occurs for several reasons. First, it takes some time for the deposit multiplier process to work itself out. The Fed can inject new reserves into the economy immediately, but the deposit expansion process of bank lending will need time to have its full effect on the money supply. Interest rates are affected immediately, but the money supply grows more slowly. Second, firms need some time to respond to the monetary policy with new investment spending—if they respond at all. Third, a monetary change is likely to affect the exchange rate, but that translates into a change in net exports only after some delay. Thus, the shift in the aggregate demand curve due to initial changes in investment and in net exports occurs after some delay. Finally, the multiplier process of an expenditure change takes time to unfold. It is only as incomes start to rise that consumption spending picks up.

    The problem of lags suggests that monetary policy should respond not to statistical reports of economic conditions in the recent past but to conditions expected to exist in the future. In justifying the imposition of a contractionary monetary policy early in 1994, when the economy still had a recessionary gap, Greenspan indicated that the Fed expected a one-year impact lag. The policy initiated in 1994 was a response not to the economic conditions thought to exist at the time but to conditions expected to exist in 1995. When the Fed used contractionary policy in the middle of 1999, it argued that it was doing so to forestall a possible increase in inflation. When the Fed began easing in September 2007, it argued that it was doing so to forestall adverse effects to the economy of falling housing prices. In these examples, the Fed appeared to be looking forward. It must do so with information and forecasts that are far from perfect.

    Estimates of the length of time required for the impact lag to work itself out range from six months to two years. Worse, the length of the lag can vary—when they take action, policy makers cannot know whether their choices will affect the economy within a few months or within a few years. Because of the uncertain length of the impact lag, efforts to stabilize the economy through monetary policy could be destabilizing. Suppose, for example, that the Fed responds to a recessionary gap with an expansionary policy but that by the time the policy begins to affect aggregate demand, the economy has already returned to potential GDP. The policy designed to correct a recessionary gap could create an inflationary gap. Similarly, a shift to a contractionary policy in response to an inflationary gap might not affect aggregate demand until after a self-correction process had already closed the gap. In that case, the policy could plunge the economy into a recession.

    Choosing Targets

    In attempting to manage the economy, on what macroeconomic variables should the Fed base its policies? It must have some target, or set of targets, that it wants to achieve. The failure of the economy to achieve one of the Fed’s targets would then trigger a shift in monetary policy. The choice of a target, or set of targets, is a crucial one for monetary policy. Possible targets include interest rates, money growth rates, and the price level or expected changes in the price level.

    Interest Rates

    Interest rates, particularly the federal funds rate, played a key role in recent Fed policy. The FOMC does not decide to increase or decrease the money supply. Rather, it engages in operations to nudge the federal funds rate up or down.

    Up until August 1997, it had instructed the trading desk at the New York Federal Reserve Bank to conduct open-market operations in a way that would either maintain, increase, or ease the current “degree of pressure” on the reserve positions of banks. That degree of pressure was reflected by the federal funds rate; if existing reserves were less than the amount banks wanted to hold, then the bidding for the available supply would send the federal funds rate up. If reserves were plentiful, then the federal funds rate would tend to decline. When the Fed increased the degree of pressure on reserves, it sold bonds, thus reducing the supply of reserves and increasing the federal funds rate. The Fed decreased the degree of pressure on reserves by buying bonds, thus injecting new reserves into the system and reducing the federal funds rate.

    The current operating procedures of the Fed focus explicitly on interest rates. At each of its eight meetings during the year, the FOMC sets a specific target or target range for the federal funds rate. When the Fed lowers the target for the federal funds rate, it buys bonds. When it raises the target for the federal funds rate, it sells bonds.

    Money Growth Rates

    Until 2000, the Fed was required to announce to Congress at the beginning of each year its target for money growth that year and each report dutifully did so. At the same time, the Fed report would mention that its money growth targets were benchmarks based on historical relationships rather than guides for policy. As soon as the legal requirement to report targets for money growth ended, the Fed stopped doing so. Since in recent years the Fed has placed more importance on the federal funds rate, it must adjust the money supply in order to move the federal funds rate to the level it desires. As a result, the money growth targets tended to fall by the wayside, even over the last decade in which they were being reported. Instead, as data on economic conditions unfolded, the Fed made, and continues to make, adjustments in order to affect the federal funds interest rate.

    Price Level or Expected Changes in the Price Level

    Some economists argue that the Fed’s primary goal should be price stability. If so, an obvious possible target is the price level itself. The Fed could target a particular price level or a particular rate of change in the price level and adjust its policies accordingly. If, for example, the Fed sought an inflation rate of 2%, then it could shift to a contractionary policy whenever the rate rose above 2%. One difficulty with such a policy, of course, is that the Fed would be responding to past economic conditions with policies that are not likely to affect the economy for a year or more. Another difficulty is that inflation could be rising when the economy is experiencing a recessionary gap. An example of this, mentioned earlier, occurred in 1990 when inflation increased due to the seemingly temporary increase in oil prices following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The Fed faced a similar situation in the first half of 2008 when oil prices were again rising. If the Fed undertakes contractionary monetary policy at such times, then its efforts to reduce the inflation rate could worsen the recessionary gap.

    The solution proposed by Chairman Bernanke, who is an advocate of inflation rate targeting, is to focus not on the past rate of inflation or even the current rate of inflation, but on the expected rate of inflation, as revealed by various indicators, over the next year.

    By 2010, the central banks of about 30 developed or developing countries had adopted specific inflation targeting. Inflation targeters include Australia, Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Korea, and, most recently, Turkey and Indonesia. A study by economist Carl Walsh found that inflationary experiences among developed countries have been similar, regardless of whether their central banks had explicit or more flexible inflation targets. For developing countries, however, he found that inflation targeting enhanced macroeconomic performance, in terms of both lower inflation and greater overall stability (Walsh, 2009).