What can Eeyore and Tigger Teach Bernanke About Monetary Policy?

(Photo: Loren Javier)

What can Eeyore and Tigger tell us about the current state of monetary policy?  A lot.  At least that’s the argument that Betsey Stevenson and I make in our new column for Bloomberg View.

The Fed is now engaged in the game of “forward guidance”—they’ve announced that they anticipate keeping interest rates at zero, until late 2014—and hope that it will shape the recovery.  But what effects will this announcement have?  To figure this out, let’s visit two of the greatest ever Fed Chairmen: Eeyore and Tigger.

It could be that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is like Eeyore:

Eeyore is a true dismal scientist, who sees bad news everywhere. He’s sure the economy will be in the doldrums for years. Indeed, he’s so worried that folks who don’t understand his pessimistic outlook will make bad decisions that he gives a speech warning them about it. He says the economy is so weak that he’ll need to keep rates low for several years.

Eeyore’s message is so sobering that it mutes the desired stimulus effect of the low interest rates. After all, why would you buy anything, or invest in producing it, if you have just learned that some of the smartest forecasters in the country think the economic outlook is so awful that they dare not raise rates until 2014?

Or alternatively, perhaps he’s more like Tigger:

Chairman Tigger has a totally different approach. He figures that the prospect of a terrific party will revive everyone’s animal spirits. He also knows what folks are thinking: Every time the economy gets going, the Fed spoils the party by taking away the punch bowl — that is, by raising interest rates to keep inflation in check. So Tigger gives a speech promising to keep interest rates low for several years — even when the economy recovers.

The prospect of low interest rates sustaining a long and robust recovery leads everyone to start spending. After all, good times are just around the corner.

Notice the problem here? Eeyore and Tigger both did very similar things—they each announced that interest rates would be low for several years—but each had a different effect. What’s up?

Eeyore is providing what economists call “outlook guidance” — he’s sharing what his economic-forecasting team thinks about the future. By contrast, Tigger is providing “policy guidance” — telling us what the central bank is going to do, and promising it will do it, no matter what.

So is Bernanke taking a page from Eeyore’s playbook, or from Tigger’s?  The most recent Fed statement says that it “currently anticipates that economic conditions–including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run–are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through late 2014.”  Sounds like Eeyore, right? After all, he says that interest rates will be low only because the Fed is forecasting “low rates of resource utilization.”  Bernanke “anticipates” low interest rates, but he’s quite clearly not promising them.  San Francisco Fed President John Williams has been even clearer that the Fed is pursuing Eeyore’s strategy, saying that “our statements are not an absolute commitment to keep rates near zero. It’s simply the FOMC’s current judgment about the best future course of policy. If the economic outlook changes, then the guidance could change too.” 

The problem with Eeyore, is that he doesn’t much stimulate the economy:

Economists studied this issue in the early 2000s, and concluded that when you can’t push interest rates any lower, Tigger’s strategy is best. Markets want to know that the Fed is committed to helping the recovery and won’t risk it to fight the specter of inflation…

Small as it may sound, the distinction is important. Businesses are always suspicious that Bernanke may try to sound like Tigger, but revert to being Eeyore when the recovery starts. To succeed at the game of forward guidance, Bernanke needs to convince us he’s committed to low rates in the short-term even if the economy improves. It’s about fully embracing a loveable tiger, or risk being mistaken for a miserable donkey.

I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to offer advice like this:

It’s time, Chairman Bernanke, to bounce on your tail.

Interested in seeing what else we can learn from the hundred acre wood?  Click through here for the full article.

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  1. Cute analogy – but there’s a (quite probable) scenario not covered by either Tigger or Eeyore.

    Imagine that the economy continues to improve – in fact let’s say it grows at 3% a year in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Not a bad outcome, most would agree.

    And yet – even if it does, we are so far behind trend that inflation will probably stay low, unemployment will probably still be well above NAIRU (or at least what we used to think NAIRU was, 5% or so), and the output gap will probably still be positive.

    In this scenario, there is every chance that the Fed would have come under strong pressure to raise rates because of the improving economy. Bernanke is signalling that, despite a decent growth _rate_, he is willing to maintain low rates in the face of what will still be low _levels_ of output relative to potential.

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  2. Sy says:

    The title of this post sounds like a concept for Malcolm Gladwell book.

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  3. James says:

    Maybe the real problem here is with stimulating the economy. Take a parallel with human behavior: taking stimulants works for a while, but eventually you pay for the stimulation with a crash. The more stimulation you use, the harder the eventual crash is going to be.

    I’ve long thought (even before it happened) that this over-stimulation was responsible for the depth of the 2008 crash. If Bush & company had just let a couple of those minor downturns take their natural course instead of stimulating them away, 2008 would have been much milder.

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  4. Michelle says:

    The market is a bear with very little brain.

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  5. Phil says:

    The wonderful thing ’bout Bernanke,
    Is Bernanke’s a wonderful thing!
    His tops made out of QE,
    His bottom’s made of deleveraging!
    He’s furrowed and cryptic and pesssimistic,
    It’s really not that fun!
    But the most wonderful thing ’bout Bernanke is
    at least he’s not Greenspan.

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  6. Gkm says:

    This is really a pointless pursuit. The point should be that Bernanke is a cog in a failed system. The Fed failed to manage the economy and regulate its membership. Bernanke was instrumental as a Fed member and then as chairman.

    But then what should be expected of an institution controlled by private interests that must walk the fine line between ripping off the people and ripping them off without them knowing it.

    If we must debate the mammalian family within which Bernanke resides, Eyore’s fits nicely.

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  7. Andreas Moser says:

    Calvin & Hobbes can teach something about the economy, too: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/calvin-and-hobbes-explain-the-economy/

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