the Federal Reserve and the election

The Fed is in an awkward position.

From a monetary stimulus perspective, the US has been in the equivalent of hospital intensive care for eight years.  In fact, by some measures the amount of stimulus being applied to the economy today is greater than it was during the depths of the 2008-2009 recession.

On the other hand, there’s the cautionary tale of Japan, which has been in quasi-recession for almost three decades.  At least part of this is due to three instances–one monetary, two fiscal–where the Land of Wa withdrew stimulus prematurely and nipped recovery in the bud.  Japan’s history also seems to show that reversing a policy mistake once made doesn’t undo all the damage of having made it in the first place.  This is the cause of the Fed desire to err on the side of having too much stimulus or having it for too long.

The Fed knows, too, that the legislative and executive branches in Washington are dysfunctional–that there’s no hope of government spending that would attack pockets of economic weakness through, say, programs to retrain workers displaced by technological advance or on repairing aging infrastructure.  This is despite the fact that extra dollops of monetary stimulus only improve the overall economic tone of the country and are less and less effective at addressing specific issues of great concern like chronic unemployment and bad roads.  On the other hand, the Fed is enabling this craziness by monetary accommodation.

On top of all this, the Fed is hemmed in by the presidential election cycle.  It typically does not want to make a move that could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the November election, either by lowering rates to make the economy seem more vigorous (favoring the incumbent) or raising them to make it seem less so (favoring the challenger).  In today’s case, of course, it has no scope to do the former.  And the Republicans are the party that wants to eliminate the Fed as an independent body (a lunatic move, from an economic standpoint).

So, what is the Fed going to do?

Its recent rhetoric says it wants to raise rates again before yearend.  There are three scheduled meetings left in 2016:  September, November and December.  It would seem to me that acting after either of the first two amounts to meddling in the election.  That leaves either an unscheduled meeting in August or the scheduled one in December.




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