Fear and Loathing at the Federal Reserve

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Why is Ben Bernanke unlikely to announce any major action to help the economy in his Jackson Hole speech on Friday? Because of inflation hawks on the Fed board? Because of concerns that further monetary policy isn’t effective when interest rates are already near zero? Because of a generalized fear of being on unfamiliar ground? Mark Thoma says it’s all of the above:

But that is not quite enough. I think a majority on the FOMC would still push forward if it weren’t for the change in the political environment. When Bernanke wrote earlier in his career and criticized the Japanese central bank for not doing more, I don’t think he thought the consequences of being wrong about inflation were as severe as they are now. The Ron Pauls in Congress looking for a reason to attack and take away the Fed’s powers, the criticism from many on the left for all sorts of things, etc., etc., puts the Fed in a more precarious political position than they ever expected to be in, and the fear of making a mistake and losing independence is tying its hands. The Fed values independence first and foremost, and it is unwilling to put that in danger. Thus, the Fed is trading more unemployment now for less in the future, and it’s mainly the political environment rather than economics that is driving this decision.

Paul Krugman says much the same thing today. The political environment is so toxic right now that the Fed is afraid that helping the economy — and thereby “interfering” with next year’s election — might produce a serious backlash in Congress.

But there’s more to this. The Fed is secure from Republican backlash as long as (a) Obama remains president and (b) he refuses to go along with Republican mischief. So if fear of losing its independence is really what’s holding back Bernanke and his allies at the Fed, it means they think there’s a significant chance that either (a) or (b) or both won’t be true over the long term. Fasten your seat belts.

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