Schooled in the short run, central banks struggle with a long-term role

Fri Aug 26, 2016 7:56am EDT
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By Howard Schneider

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. (Reuters) - Schooled in economic thinking that confines monetary policy to the short run, central bankers gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are grappling with a singular change: whether they can take over as guardians of long-term growth with programs that may stay in place and influence markets for decades to come.

The debate, being carried out in technical research and policy forums like the annual meeting here, could herald a break with decades of central bank orthodoxy which has relied on short-term interest rates as the main policy lever in favor of a host of unconventional tools - from outright targeting a certain level of growth, to the permanent use of negative interest rates or massive cash infusions to stimulate inflation.

The discussion has already seen some Fed policymakers radically shift their view of monetary policy, and will be more broadly joined on Friday when Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen delivers the opening address to the Fed's annual policy conference here.

Though watched for clues to whether the Fed is likely to raise rates in the near future, the announced subject of Yellen's speech is the Fed's policy "toolkit," and may give insight into how deeply she feels policy should be overhauled in light of what has been learned since the 2007-2009 financial crisis and recession.

Policies put in place then have largely remained intact, much to the surprise -- and chagrin -- of officials including Yellen, who have expected the United States and world economies to return to a pre-crisis "normal" once various "headwinds" diminished.

Instead, the emerging vision is of a changed world where expected growth is lower, deflation remains more of a risk than rising prices, businesses hesitate to invest and individuals' views of the future are so fully "anchored" it becomes hard to nudge them toward, for example, higher inflation.

With the impact of monetary policy muted in its short-run effect on growth, and governments globally leaving a vacuum on longer-term issues like better fiscal and productivity policies, central bankers are struggling over whether and how to step into a different, long-term role.

"When I left the Fed at the beginning of 2009 we talked about having interest rates at extraordinarily low levels for some time. I don't think anyone thought 'for some time' was going to bring us six, seven, eight years later," said Randy Kroszner, a former Fed governor and now an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.   Continued...

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen attends a news conference after chairing the second day of a two-day meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee to set interest rates in Washington, DC, U.S. on June 17, 2015.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo