On May 23 and 24, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta hosted a workshop on monetary and financial history. The workshop was organized by Atlanta Fed economist William Roberds, in cooperation with Michael Bordo (Rutgers University) and Warren Weber (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, retired). The workshop featured seven paper presentations, along with three panel discussions and a keynote lecture.
Exploring fiscal-monetary interaction
The first session of day one of the workshop featured three papers that examine interactions between monetary and fiscal policy.
The first paper of the session was presented by Michael Bordo and Oliver Bush (Bank of England) and coauthored with Ryland Thomas (Bank of England). Their paper examines causes of the 1970s inflation in the United Kingdom, which was higher than in other advanced economies at the time. Bordo and Bush presented structural decompositions of the 1970s UK inflation. These decompositions suggest that a combination of fiscal responses to external shocks and passive monetary policy was the principal causal factor. The same decompositions suggest that fiscal reforms enacted during the 1980s and early 1990s enabled the Bank of England to reduce inflation to more acceptable levels.
In the discussion , Joshua Hausman (University of Michigan) proposed that the authors emphasize narrative aspects of this historical episode. What economic models were most conducive to policies that led to double-digit inflation? Given that other countries were using the same models, why did reliance on these models result in worse inflation outcomes in the UK than elsewhere? Hausman also noted that the lower inflation rates achieved from the 1980s onward did not lead to uniformly better economic outcomes, in the form of higher trend economic growth, lower unemployment, and higher growth of real wages.
The fiscal-monetary theme continued with the second paper of the session, which was presented by George Hall (Brandeis University) and co-authored with Thomas Sargent (New York University). Their paper compares the financing of US government expenditures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to the financing of World Wars I and II, which gave rise to expenditures of comparable magnitude. Hall presented an accounting framework that decomposes wartime financing into three main components: taxes, debt, and money creation. This decomposition indicates that in contrast to expenditures during the two world wars, COVID-19 expenditures have been funded very little by taxes and largely by debt. Also different from the world wars is the fact that much of the COVID-19 debt has taken the form of monetary assets, interest-bearing Fed reserves, and reverse repos. Hall suggested that the experience of the world wars indicates that inflation will eventually amortize much of the debt induced by COVID-19.
The Hall and Sargent paper was discussed by Chris Meissner (University of California, Davis). Meissner argued that the COVID-19 shock was different from the world wars insofar as it was largely unanticipated, simultaneously global, and associated with widespread financial market disruptions. For this reason, reliance on debt funding might have been a more appropriate policy than for either of the war episodes. However, Meissner also suggested that reliance on debt financing might have significantly reduced the United States' ability to respond to future external shocks.
The final paper of the first session was presented by Eric Leeper (University of Virginia) and coauthored with Margaret Jacobson (Board of Governors) and Bruce Preston (University of Melbourne). Their paper focuses on the performance of the US economy during the Great Depression and argues that the economy's initial recovery in the early years of the Roosevelt administration can be attributed to fiscal expansion combined with the repeal of the gold standard. Leeper argued that latter policy enabled the Fed to finance much of Roosevelt's fiscal expansion via unbacked bonds, but that the recovery was then paused by more restrictive fiscal policies adopted after 1937.
Kris Mitchener (Santa Clara University) discussed this paper in the context of the large literature on the Great Depression, which has generally emphasized monetary rather than fiscal policy as a driving force in the initial Roosevelt recovery. Mitchener noted that for this reason, the paper's fiscal-monetary focus represents a new explanation of the post-1933 recovery. However, Mitchener also noted that during the Depression, most individual Treasury bond holdings were limited to higher-income households and that this heterogeneity would matter for the paper's arguments. In addition, banks held many bonds, and it would be desirable to model the effects of fiscal expansion on banks' balance sheets. Additionally, Mitchener recommended that the authors consider the effects of US policies on its international trade.
Putting inflation into historical perspective
The second session of the conference featured a panel discussion of the current inflationary outlook in the context of earlier inflationary episodes. The panelists were Robert Hetzel (Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, retired), Jeremy Rudd (Board of Governors), and Mickey Levy (Berenberg Capital Markets).
Hetzel proposed that there are enough commonalities of the current situation with historical episodes—particularly the inflationary acceleration experienced in the 1960s and 1970s—for the Federal Open Market Committee to consider formally integrating monetary history into the policymaking process. He argued that this integration would lead to a more transparent statement of the FOMC's monetary standard.
Drawing on his experience at the Richmond Fed during the 1970s, Hetzel recalled the Federal Reserve's intense resistance at that time to explicitly articulating policy objectives. He argued that although there have since been improvements, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) could better articulate a monetary standard through integration of historical perspectives into policymaking. More specifically, this proposal would include (1) establishment of a committee of monetary historians that would report directly to the FOMC, (2) a restructuring of the Teal Book (the briefing document prepared by the Board of Governors staff for FOMC meetings) to include a historical breakdown of how the economy got to its current state, and (3) replacement of the FOMC's current Summary of Economic Projections, which reports a collection of individual forecasts, with a consensus FOMC forecast that would be informed by consultations with the historian committee in part (1) of the proposal and the historical breakdown in part (2).
Rudd's presentation focused on potential changes in underlying inflation dynamics observed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rudd observed that prepandemic, Fed policymakers had been able to rely on stable long-term trend inflation in the US economy, as well as a flat Phillips curve (a negative correlation between unemployment and inflation), although the factors giving rise to these favorable conditions were not well understood. This lack of understanding has hindered Fed policymaking post-COVID, when inflation has increased in part due to large relative price shocks, creating uncertainty as to whether trend inflation has now moved higher. To overcome this uncertainty, Rudd argued that it might be useful to examine historical episodes and, particularly, the increase in trend inflation observed during the late 1960s.
Rudd proposed that the underlying dynamics in the 1960s were different from those of the current economy, because of less anchored long-term inflation trends and a steeper Phillips curve. Hence, we should reject a repeat of 1960s-style overheating as an explanation for the recent pickup in inflation. A commonality with the 1960s, however, is that policies adopted then seemed reasonable at the time, and policymakers didn't foresee them as fostering persistent inflation. A major question for policymakers, then as now, is whether the recent acceleration in inflation reflects a fundamental shift in the structure of the economy. Rudd concluded by noting that by the time this question is answered, reversing any increase in trend inflation could be difficult.
Levy's discussion focused on a recent research paper coauthored Michael Bordo. The paper surveys cyclical patterns of Fed policymaking over its entire history, from 1914 until present. Bordo and Levy argue that in these cycles, the Fed has had a general tendency to wait too long to remove monetary accommodation. They cite four factors behind this tendency: shifting doctrines about how monetary policy should be conducted, ambiguity surrounding the Fed's dual mandate, misreads of data on the state of the economy, and political pressures.Levy proposed that these same factors have been present in the most recent policy cycle, leading to delayed removal of accommodation. Movement to a neutral level of policy interest rates will now be difficult, he argued, and—given current negative real interest rates—a hard landing has a high probability. Levy concluded with three recommendations for Fed policy going forward. First, the Fed should place more emphasis on rules-based policy (for example, a type of Taylor rule) as a benchmark. Second, the Fed should adopt a less ambiguous interpretation of its dual mandate. Third, the Fed should pay more attention to the lessons of history and incorporate these lessons into its policy doctrine.
The conference's keynote lecture was delivered by Barry Eichengreen (University of California, Berkeley). Eichengreen's presentation surveyed the evolution of payments instruments over the past millennium, from medieval-era banknotes in China to today's digital forms of payment. A theme of the presentation was increasing technological efficiency: transactions in paper money were more efficient than the physical transfer of coins, and modern types of electronic transactions are more efficient still. The shift towards digital forms of payment has recently accelerated, Eichengreen observed, because of the COVID-19 epidemic, which led consumers to prefer online forms of payment. This shift has occurred in virtually every nation with a sufficiently advanced cellphone network, but especially in Sweden, which coincidentally was also an early adopter of printed banknotes.
Eichengreen noted that a factor that has worked against more widespread adoption of advanced digital forms of payment is that in most countries (with exceptions such as Sweden) these are not ubiquitous. Network externalities may soon lead to the emergence of dominant private forms of digital payment, however, but such dominance could result in monopoly pricing and the need for regulation. Blockchain technology alone will not by itself resolve issues with digital payments. Stablecoins have the potential to supplant paper currency for many purposes, but monetary history teaches that fractionally backed stablecoins might be susceptible to runs, again suggesting a role for regulation.
The lecture concluded with the observation that retail-level central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) might offer advantages in terms of ubiquity and stability, but CBDCs would simultaneously pose operational challenges for central banks and could encourage disintermediation of commercial banks. For these reasons, Eichengreen suggested that CBDCs are more likely to be issued at the wholesale level—for example, to commercial banks—and these banks would in turn manage CBDC transactions that their customers initiate.
In his closing remarks, Eichengreen argued that although paper currency has been a ubiquitous form of money only within a relatively short period of human history, its advantages mean that it will likely persist even as digital forms of payment become more widespread. As the latter become more prevalent, strong network externalities will necessitate government involvement, both through the provision of CBDCs and the regulation of private forms of money.
In tomorrow's post, I'll cover the presentations and discussions in the workshop's second day.