In last Wednesday's Financial Times, Scott Sumner issued a familiar indictment of "modern central banking practice" for failing to adopt nominal gross domestic product (GDP) targets, for which he has been a major proponent. I have expressed my doubts about nominal GDP targeting on several occasions—most recently a few posts back—so there is no need to rehash them. But this passage from Professor Sumner's article provoked my interest:
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Inflation targeting also failed because it targeted the growth rate of prices, not the level. When prices fell in the U.S. in 2009, the Federal Reserve did not try to make up for that shortfall with above target inflation. Instead it followed a "let bygones be bygones" approach.
In principle, there is no reason why a central bank consistently pursuing an inflation target can't deliver the same outcomes as one that specifically and explicitly operates with a price-level target. Misses with respect to targeted inflation need not be biased in one direction or another if the central bank is truly delivering on an average inflation rate consistent with its stated objective.
So how does the Federal Reserve—with a stated 2-percent inflation objective—measure up against a price-level targeting standard? The answer to that question is not so straightforward because, by definition, a price-level target has to be measured relative to some starting point. To illustrate this concept, and to provide some sense of how the Fed would measure up relative to a hypothetical price-level objective, I constructed the following chart.
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Consider the first point on the graph, corresponding to the year 1993. (I somewhat arbitrarily chose 1993 as roughly the beginning of an era in which the Fed, intentionally or not, began operating as if it had an implicit long-run inflation target of about 2 percent. ) This point on the graph answers the following question:
By what percent would the actual level of the personal consumption expenditure price index differ from a price-level target that grew by 2 percent per year beginning in 1993?
The succeeding points in the chart answer that same question for the years 1994 through 2009.
Here's the story as I see it:
- If you accept that the Fed, for all practical purposes, adopted a 2 percent inflation objective sometime in the early to mid-1990s, there arguably really isn't much material distinction between its inflation-targeting practices and what would have likely happened under a regime that targeted price-level growth at 2 percent per annum. The actual price level today differs by only about ½ to 1 ½ percentage points from what would be implied by such a price-level target.
Hitting a single numerical target for the price level at any particular time is of course not realistic, so an operational price-level targeting regime would have to include a description of the bounds around the target that defines success with respect to the objective. Different people may have different views on that, but I would count being within 1 ½ percentage points of the targeted value over a 20-year period as a clear victory.
- If you date the hypothetical beginning of price-level targeting sometime in the first half of the 2000s, then the price level would have deviated above that implied by a price-level target by somewhat more. There certainly would be no case for easing to get back to the presumed price-level objective.
- A price-level target would start to give a signal that easing is in order only if you choose the reference date for the target during the Great Recession—2008 or 2009.
I'm generally sympathetic to the idea of price-level targeting, and I believe that an effective inflation-targeting regime would not "let bygones be bygones" in the long run. I also believe that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has effectively implemented the equivalent price-level target outcomes via its flexible inflation-targeting approach over the past 15 to 20 years (as suggested in point number 1 above).
In fact, the FOMC has found ample scope for stimulus in the context of that flexible inflation targeting approach (which honors the requirements of the Fed's dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment). I just don't think it is necessary or helpful to recalibrate an existing implicit price-level target by restarting history yesterday.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director and
Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist, both of the Atlanta Fed