I have always found what John Williams writes interesting, from long before he became president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. So this post just reviews a speech he recently gave at the Bundesbank’s delightful conference centre on the banks of the Rhine. For me he said three interesting things.
1) He first emphasised the dangers of deviating from monetary policy’s primary goals because of a concern about financial stability. What was interesting for me is that he did this by example, looking at what had happened in Sweden and in Norway. Now my impression is that central bankers do not make a habit of publicly criticising their colleagues in other countries, but Williams’ verdict is hardly nuanced. He is particularly concerned that inflation expectations in those countries have fallen sharply away from the target. (I discussed the dangers that could arise from this here.) He concludes “If the anchor were to slip, it would wreak lasting damage to a central bank’s control over both inflation and economic activity, at considerable cost to the economy.” We are used to hearing this about positive deviations of inflation from target, so it’s nice to hear it applied equally to negative deviations (ECB please note).
2) He then talked about asset market bubbles. What he had to say was not too controversial, but it is of immediate relevance to the UK. After looking at some persuasive empirical evidence, he said:
“Low interest rates boost fundamental valuation of assets. In a world of rational expectations, asset prices adjust and that’s it. But, if one allows for limited information, the resulting bull market may cause investors to get “carried away” over time and confuse what is a one-time, perhaps transitory, shift in fundamentals for a new paradigm of rising asset prices.”
Recently I talked about how expectations of a prolonged period of low real interest rates could lead to sharp increases in house prices, as we have recently observed in the UK and elsewhere. What Williams is suggesting is that this process can lead to overshooting, as the market gets carried away.
3) All this seems to be leading to the inevitable discussion of macroprudential controls rather than interest rates to deal with overshooting of this kind. He says “monetary policy actions should only be a last resort.” But then his discussion took an unexpected turn, for me at least.
“One of monetary policy’s most important lessons—borne out in both theory and practice—is that the framework for policy is more important than the details of the execution. In terms of price and economic stability, anchoring inflation expectations and responding in a systematic way to economic developments are by far the most important elements of good monetary policy.
Instead of thinking about how monetary policy should respond to risks to financial stability, we should focus on studying ways to design policy frameworks that support financial stability with only a modest cost to macroeconomic goals and anchoring inflation expectations.”
What does this mean? He is careful to say “I am not personally advocating either of these proposals, but I do view them as creative ways to think of how to bend the curve in terms of macroeconomic and financial stability tradeoffs.” Well one of the two ideas he notes is that monetary policy should target nominal income rather than inflation. “The idea that nominal income targeting could be supportive of financial stability is relatively straightforward (Koenig 2013, Sheedy 2014).” The paper by Koenig  I did not know, but the paper by Kevin Sheedy  I discussed over a year ago in this post. You read it here first!
 Koenig, Evan F. 2013. “Like a Good Neighbor: Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk.” International Journal of Central Banking 9(2, June), pp. 57–82.
 Sheedy, Kevin D. 2014. “Debt and Incomplete Financial Markets: A Case for Nominal GDP Targeting.” Presented at Brookings Panel on Economic Activity, March 20–21.