Solved Problem: The Fed’s Policy Dilemma

Supports:  Macroneconomics Chapter 15, Section 15.3; Economics Chapter 25, Section 25.3; and Essentials of Economics Chapter 17, Sections 17.3.

Solved Problem: The Fed’s Policy Dilemma

   In the fall of 2021, the inflation rate was at its highest level since 2008. The unemployment rate was above 5 percent, which was much lower than in the spring of 2020, but still well above its level of early 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic. In testifying before Congress, Fed Chair Jerome Powell stated that he believed the high inflation rate was transitory and in the longer run “inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run 2 percent goal.”

But Powell also stated that if inflation continued to remain high the Fed would face a policy dilemma. “Almost all of the time, inflation is low when unemployment is high, so interest rates work on both problems.” But in contrast, in the fall of 2021 both the unemployment and inflation rates were high: “That’s the very difficult situation we find ourselves in.”

a. Briefly explain what Powell meant by saying that almost all of the time “interest rates work on both problems.”

b. Why did macroeconomic conditions in the fall of 2021 present Fed policymakers with a “very difficult” situation?

Source: Kate Davidson and Nick Timiraos, “Powell Says Fed Faces ‘Difficult Trade-Off’ if Inflation Doesn’t Moderate,” Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2021; and Chair Jerome H. Powell, “Testimony Before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.” September 28, 2021, federalreserve. gov..

Solving the Problem

Step 1:   Review the chapter material. This problem is about the policy situation the Fed faces when the unemployment and inflation rates are both high, so you may want to review Chapter 15, Section 15.3, “Monetary Policy and Economic Activity,” and the discussion of staflation, including Figure 13.7, in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, “Macroeconomic Equilibrium in the Long Run and the Short Run.”

Step 2:   Explain what Powell meant by “interest rates work on both problems.” We’ve seen that in the typical recession the unemployment rate increases while the inflation rate decreases. We’ve also seen that if the economy is above potential GDP, the unemployment rate is very low but the inflation rate increases. (To review these facts, see Chapter 10, Section 10.3 “The Business Cycle.”) The Fed uses changes in its target for the federal funds rate to affect the level of real GDP and the price level, as it attempts to hit its policy goals of high employment and price stability.

So “almost all of the time,” the Fed can use interest rates–changes in the target for the federal funds rate–to work on the problems of high unemployment and high inflation–depending on which is occuring during a particular period.

Step 3: Explain why macroeconomic conditions in the fall of 2021 presented Fed policymakers with a “very difficult” situation. As Powell observes, “almost all the time” Fed policy is focused on reducing either high unemployment or high inflation, but not both. As we note in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, economists refer to a situation when the unemployment and inflations rates are both high at the same time as a period of stagflation. If the inflation rate is high, then expansionary monetary policy–a low target for the federal funds rate–will reduce the unemployment rate but make an already high inflation rate even higher. Similarly, if the unemployment rate is high, then contractionary monetary policy–a high target for the federal funds rate–will reduce the inflation rate but make an already high unemploument rate even higher. A very difficult policy dilemma for the Fed!

How did Fed policymakers expect to resolve this difficulty? In his testimony, Powell explained that he believed that the high inflation rate the U.S. economy was experiencing during the fall of 2021 was transitory and would begin to decline once the supply problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic were resolved in the coming months. Referring to the supply problems he noted that “These aren’t things that we [the Fed] can control.” Therefore, the Fed did not intend to use policy to address the high inflation rate and could continue to pursue an expansionary monetary policy to push the labor market back to full employment.

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