Friday, January 27, 2012

Tale of Two Recessions

My father in law made a reference to the recession of the early 80's, and how Regan's sunny optimism helped end it.  Optimism may count for something, but the recession in 1980 was entirely different from the more recent one, because in the early 80's, Volker took the real interest rate up as high as 15% (Which is impressive, because that is over and above the high rate of inflation), and then when he decided that the economy had suffered enough to bring inflation back under control, he brought the real rate back down to reasonable levels.  

Blue is the Fed Funds-Inflation, which is a rough estimate of the real interest rate

The real fed funds rate went up, unemployment followed shortly thereafter, and then the fed funds rate went back down, and unemployment came back down to a healthy level shortly thereafter.

Compare to the last 7 years (Same graph, different time):

Blue is the Fed Funds-Inflation, which is a rough estimate of the real interest rate

We have an entirely different story here.  At the beginning of 2008 the housing market fell apart, and to try to contain this disaster, the Fed dropped the rate to roughly zero in nominal terms, but that was not enough.  Whereas in '82 the Fed caused the recession by raising rates and ended it by bringing them back down, in '08, the tried to avert a recession by bringing them down, and by the time things got really bad, it couldn't bring them down any lower.  If the fed funds rate could fall further into negative territory (ie, if inflation were 5% rather than 2%), the Fed would have a lot more room to maneuver and bring the economy back up to speed, but... nope.  Instead the Fed's first line of defense is out of steam because of the zero lower bound, which is what my intro econ class (ECON 5 for those at Tufts) called a liquidity trap.

So, please, somebody.  Explain to me why targeting inflation at 5% rather than 2% would be a bad idea!  Because if the best reasons out there are the reasons I've heard, which so far boil down to "Inflation is hard to control, and bringing it back under control requires causing a recession, which would cause unemployment," the econ 101 textbooks of 2040 are going to judge us harshly.  

The most pressing economic problem of our time is high and lingering unemployment, and to not fix it because the cure might entail some unemployment later is the height of absurdity.  It is roughly akin to telling a patient with gangrene that they won't get antibiotics, because they might help breed a resistant strain.  The possibility of a 1982 style recession in the year 2020 is a terrible reason to push us through what might well end up as a decade of high unemployment and anemic growth.

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