You know what a seesaw is, right? It’s a lot of fun. It’s a long board with a fulcrum at the center. Tuna sits at one end and Peter sits at the other. When Tuna move downward, Peter moves upward. You can do that all day. Or until the board breaks.
Lots of things in economics are like seesaws. The price of JD goes down and demand for JD goes up. The value of the dollar goes down and the Scots buy more JD. The Fed reduces the interest rate and the economy expands. Lots of seesaws out there.
In the past, the Fed believed in a seesaw called the Phillips Curve. This Phillips Curve said that if the unemployment rate went down then inflation would go up. Since inflation and unemployment were so rigidly related, either one could be used to indicate a need for monetary policy. A reduction in the unemployment rate meant inflation was rising and the Fed could back off. That is, the Fed would give less stimulus to the economy.
But that was in the past. Now the Phillips Curve is no longer rigid. It’s like the Phillips Curve has a bend in the middle, and both ends are going down. Think of the Gateway Arch in St Louis. Imagine a seesaw with both ends on the ground. Weird. Tuna and Charlie would sit there and nothing would happen. How sad.
Dr. Yellen is very confused about all this. Inflation and unemployment are both down. The thing that is curious about her reaction to all this is that she ignores the unemployment rate being down as she favors the information she is gleaning from the inflation rate. The unemployment rate is so low many folks are being tempted to return to the labor force. That should be a sign that Fed stimulus is no longer needed. But Dr. Yellen doesn’t want to be guided by this. She would rather focus on the inflation rate’s downward status. If the inflation rate is down then, by gosh, she is going to keep stimulating the economy.
It seems crazy and backward to me. Unemployment is very personal. People are getting jobs. We should like that. But we also know that pushing unemployment too low can bring very undesirable results. Just like a racer who runs the first lap much too fast, she may not have enough gas left to finish well. Inflation is also very personal. Most of us prefer a lower water bill to a higher one. Ask your neighbor. Is she complaining about prices being too low? I don't think so. So why would the Fed want to continue with a policy of making things more expensive for us?
Answering that question requires a fresh paragraph. Why does the Fed want to make things more expensive? The answer is that the Fed associates a low or falling inflation rate with dismal expectations and a lack of buying power. So even if everyone had a job, the Fed would still worry that something is amiss in the economy. And Dr. Yellen would keep stimulating.
What could be wrong with that? There are a couple of problems. One I mentioned above. We often associate over-stimulus with bad future events such as recessions. The second reason is that lower inflation rates might be the result of things the Fed simply does not and should not control. Maybe that thing is global competition. Or maybe the low inflation rate is the result of innovation that lowers prices. Clearly the Fed has no business or tools to interfere with either of those things.
Dr. Yellen has her teeth clenched like a dog with a bone. And she is not going to stop clenching until she gets us back to the good old days when inflation was soaring. She might coax output and income growth above 3% for a while. But if we learned anything from the past, an economy that grows too fast too long gives us a recession and higher unemployment. It is quite possible and highly desirable for her to implement a less stimulating policy. She should get to that task immediately and quit using low inflation as an excuse. Demand too low out there? Ask Amazon.com. I don’t think our problem is insufficient demand.