Monday, December 11, 2017

Janet Yellen's Tenure, in Retrospect (Has the Economy Really Recovered?)

On Twitter, Paul Romer lauds the job that Janet Yellen has done, writing that "In an extraordinarily difficult political context, J. Yellen did an extraordinarily important public policy job extraordinarily well."

However, I've long been a skeptic of the job that both Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have done. (Seems I'm the only one who remembers that 2010 discount rate hike, with GDP 20% below trend, she voted for, which helped spawn the Tea Party...) The economy never had a full recovery, as growth is still slow and inflation is still below target. I once explained this to a colleague, and she told me that "Sorry, but I don't think you are smarter than Ben Bernanke. He knows more about monetary policy than you." When I was at the CEA, virtually everyone else there thought I was the stupid one, and that Ben-"When Growth is Not Enough"-Bernanke's policy was roughly optimal.

Of course, this is long before Ben Bernanke himself amended his views, to say that central banks should do price-level targeting when exiting a liquidity trap. I.e., Ben Bernanke (2017) thinks the Fed should have aimed for higher inflation in the 2009 to 2014 period, whereas Ben Bernanke (2009-2014) seemed to be content with below-target inflation, much less inflation over and above the inflation target. That Bernanke (and Yellen) also believed that when growth and inflation were below forecast, a central bank should not provide more stimulus, but instead lower the forecasts.

However, Bernanke's reappraisal isn't just a repudiation of the views of the 2009 to 2014 Ben Bernanke, but also a repudiation of the views of Janet Yellen over this period. Of course, Janet has only been the Chair since 2014. Since that time, she has seen fit to end QE and raise interest rates repeatedly. So, let's do some Monday-morning quarterbacking on how well this has gone.

In terms of the Core PCE deflator, inflation has been below the Fed's own target under Yellen's entire term, and is currently nowhere near the target. In addition, there's a good case to be made that the Fed's inflation target is, itself, too low. And then there is Bernanke's argument, that, coming out of a liquidity trap period, central banks should aim for temporarily high inflation. Yellen's record here is not good.

How about with GDP growth and employment? If all is well there, slightly lower inflation would not be a real problem. However, here is Real GDP relative to the long-run trend.

Note that the US is well below it's long-run growth trend, and getting further away from it. The near-consensus among economists, interestingly enough, is that most everything that can be invented has already been invented, and there just isn't that much "stuff" left. Yes, really. I think that is nonsense (the iphone was invented in 2007!). In fact the cause is the China (+RER) shock, and then poor regulation during the housing bubble, and poor monetary policy managing the liquidity trap. This is all fairly obvious by now. Strange it isn't already the consensus. But slow inflation along with slow growth suggests that the problem isn't some structural supply problem, but due to a shortfall of demand.

However, to be fair to Paul Romer, unemployment is way down. This is a good sign, and an indicator that the labor market has improved.

However, it is not the only labor market indicator, and thus, by itself, does not provide a full picture of the economy. The employment rate for prime-aged workers is another legitimate measure to look at, as the unemployment rate might look good if many people have simply left the labor force. And, the prime-age employment rate below shows that, while the US has made steady progress, it is not quite back to the level it was at in 2007. In addition, the 2007 peak, which came after 7 years of relatively slow GDP growth despite a housing bubble, and was also the decade of the collapse in manufacturing employment, was significantly lower than the 2000 peak. (The overall employment-to-population ratio still looks terrible.)

However, even this measure is flawed in several respects. One problem is that, given heavy baby boomer retirement, more jobs have opened up for younger workers than would otherwise be the case. While I don't think an adjustment for this would change the picture that much, we might actually deduct a quarter to a half of a percent for this.

A second factor is that the several decades since the 1970s had saw increasing numbers of women enter the labor force. Optimists may say that this trend was simply complete by 2000. But, even since then, we have seen female employment continue to increase on a relative basis. Thus, I would say that our baseline shouldn't be the 2000 peak, but that we should have expected emp-to-pop to have increased more than this. How much more? Perhaps another .25 or .5%. A good paper could probably tease this out. Again, I don't think this necessitates a large adjustment. But, these are starting to add up, and means we might still be 3.5-4% below where we should be.

The graph of the female prime-aged employment rate shows that female employment has essentially recovered back to its level in 2007. This means that it is still gaining ground relative to male employment, even since 2000. And, it is still about 7% lower than the overall employment rate.

A third factor is that just because people are working, it doesn't mean they are doing work they are happy with, or have seen the wage growth they would like. Here is the part-time employment rate, which is still elevated, and presents a rather pessimistic figure. But, if more people are working part-time, this is an indication that other people who are working full-time are not employed in their ideal jobs, but would rather have better jobs with higher salaries. And, of course, given the slower GDP growth, incomes have not grown as fast as they used to.

Obviously, incomes are also not increasing as fast as they used to.

Sure, inflation is also low, but GDP growth is slow. That both are slow is an indication that the economy is demand constrained. Why is it demand constrained? Well, the end of QE and four rate hikes are certainly part of the story. Those rate hikes caused the dollar to appreciate, inflation to subside, and more manufacturing jobs to be lost. And this is Janet Yellen's doing. This wasn't a one-time mistake either. She repeatedly failed to hit her inflation target, with slow GDP, and never re-thought the course the Fed was on.

The defence of Yellen (and also of Bernanke) is that she might have liked to have been more accommodative over much of this period, but also had to deal with more conservative elements on the Board (see here).

To get a sense of how competent the people around Yellen at the Fed have been, read this stream of jaw-dropping quotes, stolen from a commenter here on Scott Sumner's excellent blog:

The 2008 “Dream Team”
Either the financial system is going to implode in a major way, which will lead to a significant further easing, or it is not.
But I should follow the philosophy of Charlie Brown, who I think said, “Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” [Laughter]
Deleveraging is likely to occur with a vengeance as firms seek to survive this period of significant upheaval… I support alternative A to reduce the fed funds rate 25 basis points. Thank you.
I also encourage us to look beyond the immediate crisis, which I recognize is serious. But as pointed out here, we also have an inflation issue. Our core inflation is still above where it should be.
MS YELLEN. I agree with the Greenbook’s assessment that the strength we saw in the upwardly revised real GDP growth in the second quarter will not hold up. Despite the tax rebates, real personal consumption expenditures declined in both June
and July, and retail sales were down in August. My contacts report that cutbacks in spending are widespread, especially for discretionary items. For example, East Bay plastic surgeons and dentists note that patients are deferring elective procedures. [Laughter]
Meanwhile, an inflation problem is brewing. The headline CPI inflation rate, the one consumers actually face, is about 6¼ percent year-to-date…My policy preference is to maintain the federal funds rate target at the current level and to wait for some time to assess the impact of the Lehman bankruptcy filing, if any, on the national economy.
As I said, it is my view that the current stance of policy is inconsistent with price stability in the intermediate term and so rates ultimately will have to rise.
Given the lags in policy, it doesn’t seem that there is a heck of a lot we can do about current circumstances, and we have already tried to address the financial turmoil. So I would favor alternative B as a policy matter. As far as language is concerned with regard to B, I would be inclined to give more prominence to financial issues. I think you could do that maybe by reversing the first two sentences in paragraph 2. You would have to change the transitions, of
But I think we should be seen as making well-calculated moves with the funds rate, and the current uncertainty is so large that I don’t feel as though we have enough information to make such calculations today.
Given the events of the weekend, I still think it is appropriate for us to keep our policy rate unchanged. I would like more time to assess how the recent events are going to affect the real economy. I have a small preference for the assessment-of-risk language under alternative A.
In fact, it’s heartening that compensation growth is coming in a little below expected in response to the energy price shock this year. This has allowed us to accomplish the inevitable decline in real wages without setting off an inflationary acceleration in wage rates.
I think what we did with Lehman was the right thing because we did have a market beginning to play the Treasury and us, and that has some pretty negative consequences as well, which we are now coming to grips with.
I think it’s too soon to know whether what we did with Lehman is right. Given that the Treasury didn’t want to put money in, what happened was that we had no choice…I hope we get through this week. But I think it’s far from clear, and we were taking a bet, and I hope in the future we don’t have to be in situations where we’re taking bets.
Mr. FISHER. All of that reminds me—forgive me for quoting Bob Dylan—but money doesn’t talk; it swears. When you swear, you get emotional. If you blaspheme, you lose control. I think the main thing we must do in this policy decision today is not to lose control, to show a steady hand. I would recommend, Mr. Chairman, that we embrace unanimously—and I think it’s important for us to be unanimous at this moment—alternative B
Those would be my suggestions to try to strike that balance—that we are keenly focused on what’s going on, but until we have a better view of its implications, we are not going to act.

The optimistic view of Yellen is that, while overall policy was quite inappropriately tight for essentially the entire period since 2008, Yellen may have been struggling all the time against these clowns in private, leading policy on a less-bad course. It seems this was partly true, but this case remains to be made, however, as I see no evidence that she wasn't in favor of the rate hikes as Fed Chair.  She also could have talked Obama into making timely appointments in 2009 and 2010, to try to get policy back on track. Instead, she voted for a rate hike in 2010. I viewed this as unforgivable at the time, and it even looks worse in retrospect.

Of course, she also got unlucky. Had it not been for Comey, her mistakes as Fed Chair would likely not have led to Donald Trump.

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