What Should the Fed Do? How About Nothing?

For the first time in roughly fifteen years, interest rates in the United States are about right. In economics, we call it the “neutral” or “natural” rate. The Taylor Rule says rates should be higher, and our model that uses nominal GDP growth (real GDP plus inflation) says the same thing. But both these models rely on data that is still distorted by COVID.

A simpler approach is to assume interest rates should be “Inflation Plus.” If we judge current inflation using an average of the Cleveland Median CPI (up 5.3% from a year ago) and overall total CPI (up 3.2% from a year ago) we get 4.2%. “Plus 1%” says rates should be roughly 5.2%. And that’s almost exactly where the federal funds rate is today.

This is a big change. Between 2008 and today, the Federal Reserve held the funds rate below inflation roughly 83% of the time. These excessively low rates have created problems.

Banks have hundreds of billions of dollars of mark-to-market losses and government-funded green new deal projects are facing serious problems because they are not profitable at current neutral interest rates. In other words, holding rates down artificially, like the Fed did for years, may make things look OK, but it can’t last forever.