Sunday, August 14, 2022
Aug. 14, 2022

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El-Erian: The Fed is failing in four ways

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Global economy watchers and market participants will be paying a lot of attention next week to how the Federal Reserve describes the U.S. economic outlook, to the magnitude of its interest rate increase and whether it changes the pace of its balance-sheet contraction. Yet for the well-being of the U.S. and global economy, the answer to these questions is less important than whether the Fed shows seriousness about fixing four failures that continue to fuel one of the worse policy mistakes in decades: Failures of analysis, forecasts, response and communication.

Let us first dispose with what seems to interest economists and markets the most right now.

On the economic outlook, the Fed will acknowledge that, once again, inflation has proved to be higher and more stubborn than projected and that, despite some signs of weakness, the U.S. economy remains in a “good place.” With that, it is likely to again lift rates by 75 basis points and leave unchanged its previously announced plans for quantitative tightening.

This will come as a relief to those worried that the Fed, playing a desperate game of catch-up, would raise rates by 100 basis points and worsen what is already an uncomfortably high risk of tipping the U.S. economy into recession. Yet such relief will again prove fleeting unless the Fed also regains policy credibility by addressing its four persistent failures.

The first is one of analysis. The Fed has yet to make the comprehensive analytical shift from a world dominated for years by deficient aggregate demand to the current one where deficient aggregate supply plays an important role. Its monetary policy approach is either still formally governed by the “new framework” adopted last year that is no longer suitable and should be publicly discarded or governed by no framework at all, thereby leaving the U.S. and global economy without a much-needed anchor.

The result of this is a central bank that continuously struggles to properly inform and influence economic agents, that consistently lags behind markets rather than leads them, and that could easily fall prey to the even more catastrophic policy mistake of returning to the 1970s trap of “stop-go” policies.

For an illustration of the inadequate Fed policy anchor, consider the recent implied market forecast of what it will announce on Wednesday. In just a few days, the probability of the Fed raising by a highly unusual 100 basis points went from insignificant to even odds and then down again to improbable.

The longer the Fed resists the overdue analytical pivot, the more its inflation and growth forecasts will continue to miss the mark, exacerbating the second failure. For the last few quarters, such projections have been quickly and correctly dismissed as unrealistic by a wide range of economists, market analysts and, even more unusual, former Fed officials. This matters even more now that the U.S. economy is showing signs not just of weakening but also of flirting with a recession.

Third, the Fed must be more agile in its policy responses. It is now widely agreed that, after sticking for way too long to its misguided “transitory” inflation call, it should have responded more forcefully when it finally “retired” this faulty characterization. This was confirmed by former Vice Chair Randal Quarles last week, who also referred to the concern that I and many others hold that the Fed is still co-opted by markets.

Finally, the Fed must be more straightforward in its communication. It seems to remain the central bank in advanced countries that is most prone to, using a phrase from former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, “fairy tale economics”; and it is the most systemically important of all these central banks.

Regardless of what the Fed does next week, without addressing these four deficiencies, the central bank will continue to lack the credibility needed to avoid being remembered by economic historians as having unnecessarily caused a U.S. recession; having destabilized a global economy still trying to recover from COVID; having worsened inequality; having fueled unsettling financial instability; and having contributed to debt stress in fragile developing countries.


Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A former chief executive officer of Pimco, he is president of Queens’ College, Cambridge; chief economic adviser at Allianz SE; and chair of Gramercy Fund Management. He is author of “The Only Game in Town.”

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