Powell’s Quest for Economic Stability Is Destabilizing

(Richard M. Ebeling, American Institute for Economic Research) When the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank speaks the financial markets listen, and this was no different with Jerome Powell’s virtual address to the annual meeting of central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

What they got is what Harry Truman complained about when hearing from his economic advisors: “On the one hand, ‘this,’ but on the other hand, ‘that’.” Truman said that he desperately wanted a one-handed economist.

After a decade of general economic calm most of the time, with modest to reasonable growth, relatively low price inflation, and, at the beginning of 2020 before the Coronavirus lockdowns, unemployment at its lowest level in half a century, everyone is now worried about what to expect from the Federal Reserve in terms of monetary and interest rate policy in the months and years ahead in the face of all that has been happening for the last year and a half.

Whipsaw GDP and Huge Government Expenditures

After a staggering decline in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from $19.2 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2019 to $17.2 trillion in the second quarter of 2020, or a 9 percent decrease of real GDP in a matter of a few months, the latest revised estimate by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) for the second quarter of 2021 is that real GDP reached $19.36 trillion. This was a 12.5 percent increase over its 2020 low, and a level now above its pre-Coronavirus high.

It is worth keeping in mind, however, that all of these numbers are exaggerated in terms of real private sector vibrancy because in 2019, federal government expenditures came to $4.45 trillion, or 23 percent of that $19.2 trillion GDP total. By the end of 2020, due to the relaxing of the federal and state lockdown and shutdown mandates over much of the U.S. economy in the second half of last year, real GDP had recovered to $18.76 trillion, but federal government expenditures came to $6.6 trillion, or 35 percent of that total GDP. And just in the first half of 2021, out of that $19.36 trillion GDP, federal spending has already been $5.86 trillion of that total, or 30.2 percent.

If government spending is even partly discounted from GDP as a false indicator of the economic “health” of the U.S., since Uncle Sam has nothing to spend other than what it either first taxes away from the private sector or has borrowed from the financial markets, the private economy is far from doing as well as the GDP numbers suggest.

Lagging Unemployment and Rising Price Inflation

After unemployment had reached a low of 3.5 percent of the labor force at the start of 2020, it rose to almost 15 percent in April of last year, due to the government-commanded halt of a huge amount of economic activity. In July 2021, unemployment had declined to 5.4 percent of the labor force; but this still left it almost 55 percent above its low at the beginning of 2020. 

After the Consumer Price Index (CPI) mostly fluctuated in a relatively narrow range of between one and two percent, annually, over the last ten years, 2021 has seen the CPI increase to 5.4 percent in July of this year. Certain subgroups, such as energy and used car automotive sectors increased in double digit ranges on an annualized basis.    

With unemployment still considered high, with the CPI increasing noticeably above the decade-long annual average, and question marks concerning how GDP will grow for the remainder of this year, given continuing supply-chain disruptions and uncertainties about the impact of variations and new mutations of the Coronavirus, all eyes and ears turned to Jerome Powell’s pronouncements about the future direction of Federal Reserve monetary and interest rate policy.

Powell’s Maybe This, Maybe That, Policy Pronouncement

And what he said was that the Federal Reserve Board of Governors has not decided what to do! On the one hand, the economy is improving so, perhaps, before the end of the year, the Fed will reduce its current monthly purchase of $120 billion worth of assets – $80 billion of U.S. government securities, and $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities. And it may decide that it is time to no longer use its policy tools to keep key interest rates close to zero.

On the other hand, recent price inflation may only be a transitory spurt due to supply-side problems, so the concern about accelerating price increases may be misplaced. Therefore, it may be premature to reduce asset purchases too quickly and certainly it is necessary to be cautious in any nudging up of interest rates that might cut short the national economic recovery before unemployment has been reduced, once again, to a level closer to standard benchmarks of “full employment.”

On the one hand, the worst of the Coronavirus may have passed, so there may be no new shutdown hurdles in the way of continuing improvement as reflected in the usual macroeconomic measurements. On the other hand, virus variants may prevent a smooth path to a fully restored and growing economy. So, it may be too soon to really specify when and by how much asset purchases will be reduced or by how much those interest rates will be raised from their current near zero levels.

The Fed Chairman also said that, on the one hand, the Fed leadership has plenty of experience and policy tools to keep the economy on a sound and even path. On the other hand, such things as the impact of the Coronavirus and the threats facing the world from global warming are unique, making charting the Fed policy course a distinct challenge.

Powell’s Reticence and the Political Business Cycle

In other words, Jerome Powell evaded any straightforward policy program, and therefore offered something for almost everyone, in terms of easing fears and concerns that either the policy foot will stay too long where it is on the accelerator or will start putting on the brakes too quickly.

Either he is being reticent due to honest doubts about what he thinks is ahead for the economy, or he knows how to play to the audience in the White House and in Congress who will decide whether or not he is appointed for a second term as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. After all, you don’t want to seem to be planning any clear policy moves that might threaten the reelection of Senators or Congressmen in the 2022 elections, or antagonize a president who does not want to lose his thin majority in the national legislature.

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