Scott Sumner is perplexed by Fed chair candidate Kevin Warsh. He reads the 2010 FOMC transcripts and finds Warsh explaining:
First, my views on policy. As I said when we met by videoconference, my views are increasingly out of step with the views of most people around this table. The path that you’re leading us to, Mr. Chairman, is not my preferred path forward. I think we are removing much of the burden from those that could actually help reach these objectives, particular the growth and employment objectives, and we are putting that onus strangely on ourselves rather than letting it rest where it should lie. We are too accepting of dangerous policies from others that have been long in the making, and we should put the burden on them.
I can think, Mr. Chairman, of a tough weekend that the Europeans had, particularly your counterpart at the ECB, in the spring or summer, when we all knew that the European Central Bank, rightly or wrongly, was going to take action. But Jean-Claude Trichet did not take action until very late that Sunday night, until the fiscal authorities did their part. He thought that if on Friday night he were to say all of the things he’d be willing to do, he’d be taking the burden off the fiscal authorities. He chose to wait. I think we would be far better off waiting. If we proceed on this path, as I suspect we will, I would still encourage you to put the burden where it rightly belongs, which is on other policymakers here in Washington, and to do so in a way that is respectful of different lines of responsibility.
Sumner is understandably scratching his head, trying to figure out what Warsh is getting at:
His reasoning process is poor and he lacks good communication skills. He has very poor judgment when interpreting data. I really don’t know what he’s trying to say here, but the reference to Trichet is interesting. Trichet was trying to encourage fiscal authorities to adopt more contractionary fiscal policies, not expansionary policies. Trichet did not want to “bail out” expansionary policies with ultra-low interest rates, and Warsh seems to be endorsing Trichet’s approach. And given Warsh’s reputation as a conservative, and the massive deficits being run by Obama back in 2010, I find it odd that Warsh would be advocating fiscal stimulus, as Brannon suggests. But again, the passage is so garbled that I could easily be wrong.
I don’t think Warsh was advocating for more fiscal stimulus at this meeting. Warsh is a Very Serious Person, and all Very Serious People know that deficits are bad. I believe that Warsh was at this juncture advocating a Trichet-style approach to the crisis, using the independence of the central bank to force the fiscal authorities to rein in those bad deficits, because of course everything wrong in the economy can be tied back to deficit spending. All Very Serious People know this. Of course, Trichet’s approach proved to be disastrous, which is why Sumner is rightfully puzzled when hearing a Fed governor suggest the same.
Sadly, Warsh was not the only Fed official who advocated such an approach. Warsh is apparently cut from the same cloth as the person I believe was the worst regional bank president in recent memory. Recall when the FOMC statement contained this sort of reference:
Household spending and business fixed investment advanced, and the housing sector has strengthened further, but fiscal policy is restraining economic growth.
Of course, if you bothered to know what the FOMC was saying, you knew the complaint was that they believed monetary policy had reached its limits to stimulate the economy, and that faster growth required a more stimulative monetary policy.
Then Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher either didn’t understand what the FOMC said, or deliberately misinterpreted the FOMC. In a 2013 speech, Fisher says:
Even if we at the Dallas Fed are right and the overall outlook for the economy is better than the current dashboard or the conventional prognostications of economists, there exists a formidable brake on growth. It was referred to point-blank in the last statement issued by the FOMC: “…fiscal policy is restraining economic growth.”
Fiscal policy is inhibiting the transmission of monetary policy into robust job creation…
…The propensity of members of Congress has been to spend in excess of revenues to give pleasure to their constituents and garner their affection…Until the Congress and the president provide a clear road map as to how fiscal rectitude will be implemented, this lack of credible details for limiting the debt-to-GDP ratio and reengineering fiscal policy to stimulate rather than constrain growth is creating undue uncertainty about future tax rates, future government purchases, future retiree benefits and all manner of factors that impact employment and economic growth. Meanwhile, the divisive nature and petty posturing of those who must determine the fiscal path of the nation is further undermining confidence and limiting the effectiveness of monetary policy…
…I argue that the Fed has no hope of moving the economy to full employment unless our fiscal authorities get their act together…Until then, I argue that the Fed is, at best, pushing on a string and, at worst, building up kindling for a massive shipboard fire of eventual inflation.
These aren’t the kind of people you want in charge of monetary policy. We need policymakers that understand their role is not to withhold monetary stimulus to force fiscal authorities to pursue countercyclical policy simply because Very Serious People know that deficit spending is always bad and cutting deficits is the solution to every problem. Monetary policy is about independently assessing the economy and enacting the policy necessary to maintain full employment and price stability. And oftentimes that means taking fiscal policy as an exogenous factor.
What is particularly discouraging is that neither Warsh nor Fisher appears to understand that during a recession, at a minimum automatic stabilizers themselves will swell the deficit. Taking aim at the deficit in such times is naive at best, deliberately spiteful at worst.
My concern remains that a Fed with someone like Kevin Warsh at the helm would prove to be disastrous for Wall Street and Main Street alike when the next recession hits. Neither group needs a central banker that believes a recession is an opportunity to inflict more pain.