The World’s Central Banker

BERKELEY – The US Federal Reserve these days is broadly happy with its monetary policy. But, since mid-2007, its policy has been insufficiently expansionary. The policy most likely to succeed right now would be analogous to that implemented by the Fed in 1979 and 1933, Great Britain in 1931, and Shinzo Abe today.

Those of us who fear that the Fed’s approach has greatly deepened the US economy’s malaise and is turning America’s cyclical unemployment into permanent long-term structural non-employment have lost the domestic monetary-policy argument. But there is another policy argument that needs to be joined. The Fed is not just the US central bank; it is the world’s central bank.

America’s current exchange-rate regime is one of floating rates – or at least of rates that can float. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, economists like Milton Friedman assumed that a global regime of floating exchange rates would be one in which currency values moved slowly and gradually alongside differences in the economy’s inflation and productivity-growth rates.

In the 1970s, the economist Rudi Dornbusch (and reality) taught us that that was wrong: a floating-rate regime capitalizes expected future differences in nominal interest rates minus inflation rates into today’s exchange rate. A country that changes its monetary policy vis-à-vis the US changes its current exchange rate by a lot; and, in today’s highly globalized world, that means that it deranges its import and export sectors substantially. Because no government wants to do that, nearly all governments today follow the US in setting monetary policy, diverging from it only tentatively and cautiously.

So the US is not just one economy in a world of economies following their own monetary policies under a flexible exchange-rate regime. The US is, rather, a global hegemon: the central bank for the world, with a responsibility not just to stabilize output, employment, and inflation and ensure financial stability in the US, but also to manage the world economy in its entirety.

One area of concern is the health and stability of growth in emerging markets as they attempt to benefit from capital inflows; satisfy North Atlantic demands for open financial markets; and manage the resulting instability created by speculative “hot money,” the carry trade, irrational exuberance, and overshooting. Emerging-market central-bank governors fear a US that alternates between expansionary policy that fuels huge hot-money inflows and a domestic inflationary spiral, and rapid tightening that chokes off credit and causes a domestic recession.

Then there is the main problem facing the global economy today: the crisis of Europe and the eurozone. The creation of the euro without an appropriate fiscal union meant that transfers from surplus to deficit regions would not eliminate or even cushion demand imbalances. The fact that the eurozone lacked the labor-market flexibility needed to make it an optimal currency area meant that adjustment via regional reallocation of economic activity would be glacial, while its members’ loss of control over monetary policy ruled out adjustment via nominal depreciation.

Moreover, Europe lacks the governance institutions needed to choose the easiest path to manage economic rebalancing: moderate inflation in the north, rather than grinding deflation and universal bankruptcy in the south. The European Union’s institutional design amplifies the voices of those interests pushing for policies that have now set Europe on the deflationary road, thus all but guaranteeing lost decades during which the EU will fail to deliver growth and prosperity.

We have an example from the early twentieth century of the political consequences of such a period of economic depression and stagnation. The reaction to what Karl Marx called “parliamentary cretinism” is the rise of movements that seek, instead, a decisive leader – someone to tell people what to do. Such leaders soon learn that their solutions are no better than anybody else’s and decide that the best way to remain in power is by blaming all problems on foreigners. Thus they exalt the “nation” and focus their policies on zero-sum quarrels with other countries and on scapegoating deviant “aliens” at home.

This is not in Europe’s interest, and it is not in America’s interest to have to deal with such a Europe. A democratic, prosperous, and stable Europe implies a much better and safer world for the US.

Here is where the Fed comes in. By shifting its monetary-policy regime to target 4% annual inflation – or 6% annual nominal GDP growth – the US would set in motion rapid rebalancing in the eurozone. Rather than see the 30% euro appreciation that would follow from the ECB’s current monetary policy, German exporters would scream for measures to prevent America’s “competitive devaluation,” finally bringing about moderate inflation in the north rather than the current grinding depression in the south.

A world in which the US has a proven record of honoring the trust that is required of it to play the role of global economic hegemon is a much better world for the US than one in which it is not trusted. Simply put, the US must manage the global economy for the collective common good, or else confront a world in which global macroeconomic management results from race-to-the-bottom national policy struggles.

America’s medium- and long-term political, security, and, yes, economic interests require the Fed to recognize that its policy mission is not to focus narrowly on attempting to achieve and maintain internal balance. Rather, it is to embrace and fulfill its role as the world’s central bank, by balancing aggregate demand and potential supply for the global economy as a whole.

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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