Last Friday, the International Monetary Fund released a staff position note (basically, a working paper) entitled “Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy.” The impetus for the paper, writing in a surprisingly clear and jargon-free tone, seemed clear enough. In the introduction, the authors argue that macroeconomists and policymakers had been lulled into a false sense of complacency about how to conduct macroeconomic policy. The onset of the global economic crisis—or perhaps more accurately, the inability of our macroeconomic policy toolkit to address the crisis—challenged that complacency, creating the need to rethink our policies.
But the surprising part doesn’t come from the paper’s assertion that we need to think about what our post-crisis macroeconomic policy might look like. Rather, the surprising part—and the part that has generated considerable discussion in the blogosphere—are the recommendations themselves. The report recommends that central banks and the International Monetary Fund make several key changes in their policy outlook:
- Increasing the inflation target from 2 to 4 percent.
- Automatic lump sum payments should be introduced for poorer families if unemployment crosses a pre-determined threshold.
- Exchange rate intervention should be permitted for developing countries heavily dependent on international trade.
- Central banks should be granted greater regulatory authority and capacity.
These proposals represent a dramatic departure from the Washington Consensus [glossary] that dominated international economic policy since the early 1980s. Indeed, the Financial Times noted that, “The suggestion that inflation targets should be raised to 4 per cent will cause many central bankers to choke on their breakfasts, since they have spent their whole careers gaining and preserving the creditability of keeping inflation at levels close to 2 percent.”
Needless to say, the proposal has sparked considerable coverage. While Ben Bernanke still seems to be committed to keeping inflation under the 2 per cent target, Paul Krugman and James Vreeland have both already chimed in the on discussion, offering some important contributions. (Krugman importantly notes that the current financial crisis facing Greece and the other PIIGS countries has its roots in this low-inflation policy). And Joseph Stiglitz has written several books critiquing the Consensus. But the new position note comes from within the IMF, suggesting a more dramatic policy shift may be on the horizon.
So why the move? The argument presented in the position note concludes that because the inflation targets were set so low, there was no room for central banks to maneuver once the global economic downturn hit. Central banks quickly lowered interest rates, attempting to stimulate the economy. But when this did not work, monetary policy provided few good options for addressing eh economic crisis.