Last weekend the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City hosted its annual symposium in Jackson Hole. Despite being the Fed’s largest annual event, the symposium has been “fairly boring” for years, in terms of what can be learned about the future of actual policy. This year’s program, Changing Market Structures and Implications for Monetary Policy, was firmly in that tradition—making Jerome Powell’s speech, his first there as Fed Chair, the main event. In it, he covered familiar ground, suggesting that the changes he has begun as Chair are likely to continue.
Powell constructed his remarks around a nautical metaphor of “shifting stars.” In macroeconomic equations a variable has a star superscript (*) on it to indicate it is a fundamental structural feature of the economy. In Powell’s words, these starred values in conventional economic models are the “normal, or “natural,” or “desired” values (e.g. u* for the natural rate of unemployment, r* for the neutral rate of interest, and π* for the optimal inflation rate). In these models the actual data are supposed to fluctuate around these stars. However, the models require estimates for many star values (the exception being desired inflation, which the Fed has chosen to be a 2% annual rate) because they cannot be directly observed, and therefore must be inferred.
These models then use the gaps between actual values and the starred values to guide—or navigate, in Powell’s metaphor—the path of monetary policy. The most famous example being, of course, the Taylor Rule, which calls for interest rate adjustments depending on how far the actual inflation rate is from desired inflation and how far real GDP is from its estimated potential. Powell’s thesis is that as these fundamental values change, particularly as the estimates become more uncertain—as the stars shift so to speak—using them as guides to monetary policy becomes more difficult and less desirable.
His thesis echoes a point he made during his second press conference as Fed Chair when he said policymakers “can’t be too attached to these unobservable variables.” It also underscores Powell’s expressed desire to move the Fed in new directions: less wedded to formal models, open to a broader range of economic views, and potentially towards using monetary policy rules. To be clear, while Powell has outlined these new directions it remains to be seen how and whether such changes will actually be implemented.
A specific example of a new direction—and to my mind the most important comment in the Jackson Hole speech—was Powell’s suggestion that the Fed look beyond inflation in order to detect troubling signs in the economy. A preoccupation with inflation is a serious problem at the Fed, and one that had disastrous consequences in 2008. Indeed, Powell noted that the “destabilizing excesses,” (a term that he should have defined) in advance of the last two recessions showed up in financial market data rather than inflation metrics.
While Powell is more open to monetary policy rules than his predecessors, he’s yet to formally endorse them as anything other than helpful guides in the policymaking process. At Jackson Hole he remarked, “[o]ne general finding is that no single, simple approach to monetary policy is likely to be appropriate across a broad range of plausible scenarios.” This was seen as a rejection of rule-based monetary policy by Mark Spindel, noted Fed watcher and co-author of a political history of the Fed. However, given the shifting stars context of the speech, Powell’s comment should be interpreted as saying that when the uncertainty surrounding the stars is increasing, the usefulness of the policy rules that rely on those stars as inputs is decreasing. In other words, Powell is questioning the use of a mechanical rule, not monetary policy rules more generally.
Such an interpretation is very much in keeping with past statements made by Powell. For example, in 2015, as a Fed Governor, he said he was not in favor of a policy rule that was a simple equation for the Fed to follow in a mechanical fashion. Two years later, Powell said that traditional rules were backward looking, but that monetary policy needs to be forward looking and not overly reliant on past data. Upon becoming Fed Chair early this year, Powell made it a point to tell Congress he found monetary policy rules helpful—a sentiment he reiterated when testifying on the Hill last month.
The good news is that there is a monetary policy rule that is forward looking, not concerned with estimating the “stars,” and robust against an inflation fixation. I am referring to a nominal GDP level target, of course; a monetary policy rule that has been gaining advocates.
Like in years past, there was not a lot of discussion about the future of actual monetary policy at the Jackson Hole symposium. But if Powell really is moving the Federal Reserve towards adopting a rule, he is also beginning to outline a framework that should make a nominal GDP rule the first choice.