More thoughts on the idea that interest rates ought to rise because of the possibility that the financial sector is taking excessive risks: what I called in this earlier post the BIS case, after the Bank of International Settlements, the international club for central bankers. I know Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma, Tony Yates and many others have already weighed in here, but - being macroeconomists - they were perhaps too modest to draw this lesson.
To most macroeconomists, the theory of monetary policy is pretty straightforward. Interest rates should be set at a level which closes the output gap, which can be defined as the level of output and unemployment that will keep underlying inflation constant. We can call this real interest rate the Wicksellian natural rate. The difficulty is not in the concept, but in the practice of putting numbers to this concept when inflation is noisy, the output gap is hard to estimate, there are lags in the system etc etc.
But, respond those putting the BIS case, wasn’t that what monetary policymakers thought they were doing in 2007, and look what happened next. Monetary policy cannot afford to ignore the financial sector, and the risk of excessive lending and bubbles that subsequently blow up the economy. There are signs, they say, that what happened in 2007/8 may be happening again now, so we need to raise rates to prevent another crash, even though there is still a negative output gap and inflation is below target.
Which might seem plausible, until you notice what is going on here. The implication is that a financial crisis only happens because interest rates are set at the wrong level. The Great Recession was all the fault of the Fed, who kept interest rates too low after the 2001 recession. The gradual deregulation of the financial sector in the decades before? - not an issue. The widespread misselling of subprime mortgages? - these things happen. All the other examples of misselling and fraud? - boys will be boys. An industry that profits from a massive implicit public subsidy? - we see no subsidy. Classifying subprime products as AAA? Massive increases in bank leverage in the 00s? - all the result of keeping interest rates too low.
When those putting the BIS case tell you that macroprudential controls (a.k.a. financial regulations) are ‘untested’ and ‘uncertain in their impact’, what they are really saying is that the financial system cannot be regulated to make it safe when interest rates are low. There is no evidence for that proposition, and a lot of history that says otherwise. We do not have to accept a deregulated financial sector which has the power at any moment to derail the real economy. But of course most working in the financial sector hate regulation. They have an interest in perpetuating different stories about the Great Recession. If you spend too much time around bankers, there is a danger that you come to believe these self-serving stories.
But, you might say, what harm would a modest increase in interest rates do? Again, basic macroeconomics, which I have not seen anyone putting the BIS case address. Raising rates implies in current circumstances a larger negative output gap, which will reduce inflation further below its target. As happened in Sweden, and accurately predicted by macroeconomist Lars Svensson. Two things could then happen. First, interest rates come back down again (in Sweden’s case by outvoting the governor for the first time since it gained its independence in 1999), but the cost of lost resources and higher unemployment created in the meantime can never be redeemed. Second, interest rates stay high for long enough that the public will conclude that the inflation target has in reality been revised down, and we risk converging to a deflationary steady state (technical discussion here), or in non-technical terms a Japan-like lost decade or more of low output and deflation.
To see clearly why this makes no sense, consider the symmetric case. Suppose someone argued, when inflation was above target, that we should not raise rates, but instead allow the output gap to be positive. I suspect those currently making the BIS case would scream disaster – it is the 1970s all over again. So why is that wrong but doing the same thing in reverse OK? In fact it is worse than that. If long run expected inflation rises, a central bank can always signal its true inflation target by sharply raising rates. In the opposite case it may not be able to, because of the Zero Lower Bound.
I like to praise the current UK government when I can. In setting up a Financial Policy Committee that is separate from the Monetary Policy Committee they did exactly the right thing. This formalises an assignment: macro prudential policy to control financial sector excess, and interest rates to control demand and inflation. Most macroeconomists know this makes sense. But the financial sector has a pecuniary interest in pretending otherwise. Those that get too close to that sector should be kept well away from setting interest rates.